Skip main navigation

What makes a good dictionary example?

An exercise in evaluating sentences from a corpus in terms of their usefulness as example sentences in a dictionary entry.
© Michael Rundell. CC BY-NC 4.0

In this step, we ask you to evaluate some sentences from a corpus in terms of their usefulness and suitability as example sentences in a dictionary.

The definition of a word in a dictionary is often complemented by one or more example sentences. Examples can be very helpful in clarifying what the definition says about a word’s meaning, and in showing how a word is normally used – what kinds of context it tends to appear in, how it functions grammatically, and which other words often appear alongside it. In a historical dictionary like the OED, the examples will be exact quotations (usually known as ‘citations’) from a particular book, journal, etc., and the source of the citation will be given. But this is a special case. In mainstream lexicography, examples are typically derived from the corpus which underpins the dictionary.

Selecting appropriate examples from a corpus is a time-consuming task for lexicographers. However, what if it could be automated? Before we can program a corpus-querying system to find good examples, we need to have a clear understanding of what makes an example ‘good’.

Here are three important characteristics of a ‘good’ example:

  • It should be easy to understand: so, for example, it should try to avoid rare or difficult vocabulary.

  • It shouldn’t be too long: it isn’t reasonable to expect a user to read a long and complex sentence in order to get the point.

  • It should illustrate the word in a context which corpus evidence tells us is typical of the way the word is normally used and the way it normally combines with other words.

Your task

The downloadable PDF titled ‘What makes a good dictionary example?’ shows eight sentences. These sentences are taken from the British National Corpus, and they all contain the word ‘demonstrate’ (when it means to show or prove something).
Your task is to decide whether or not each sentence would be suitable as a dictionary example, and to explain the reasons for your decision, with reference to the three criteria listed in the bullets above.
Share your response to this task in the comments area
© Michael Rundell. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Understanding English Dictionaries

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education