Using On-Line Concordances to Find Examples of English the Way It’s Really Used

Written by: Vjatseslav Konovalov,
Narva College of Tartu University, Estonia

The Internet has become an indispensable resource for English language teachers at all levels.  There are plenty of web-sites that offer possibilities for independent language studies (e.g.;, provide with a sensible expert advice (e.g. and help prepare for tests (e.g.
There is also a resource available on the WWW, which for some reason or other has been overlooked and has not received enough attention yet.  I am talking about on-line concordances.  Concordances are corpora compiled by some large international bodies, such as Hong Kong University, and made available on-line.  Why it is a very good resource is because the corpora are built with the most recently collected data, so the language used in the corpora is up-to-date and give examples of English the way it is really used.
I would like to share my personal experience on how on-line concordances could be used by the teachers of English.  Naturally, the prerequisite for making exercises similar to the ones listed below is Internet access.
My first example would be suitable for teachers of primary schools.  By using the British National Corpus available at a teacher could enter in the search window any vocabulary item to be studied by the students.  A screenful of examples will then be displayed (usually 50 items).  After that the teacher may select and copy some of the sentences from the list of 50 and deletes the word to be introduced to the students.  Judging by the short context that each of the sentences provides for the students, they should be able to guess what the actual word is.  Here is an exemplifying set of sentences for the word milk.

*Work out the meaning of the missing word from the context given (one word fits all the sentences) (Hong Kong University VLC Web Concordancer is advisable)
1.    d wide, he squirted the warm white ____ against  the roof of his mouth and
2.   oat would not.     “You’re boiling ___ ain’t you”? soothing it with  his
3.   ed in a still room, with a bowl of ___ and a loaf  of Indian bread. I can
4.   st to eat in his  cereal bowl with ___ and honey.     Maple syrup is made
5.   at  had to be bought for the baby, ___ and orange juice  and vitamins and
*(this idea was borrowed from C.Tribble & G. Jones Concordances in the Classroom, Longman, 1990)
If there are computer laboratories available for the use by the English teachers at school, then the scope of opportunities for using concordances increases manifold.  A very straightforward and yet, thought-provoking task would be to ask the students to work out the meaning of a particular word through the context in which it is used.  As an example, the students could enter into the search window the word albeit, which is not very frequently used in conversational English, but could be very appropriate when it comes to writing some academic text.  Here is what some of the sentences that would appear on the screen look like:
Here is a random selection of 50 solutions from the 1379 found…

A0P 406 Both were old enough to feel keenly the savage blow, one from which Leonard suffered in particular, albeit outwardly in guarded silence: `;The deeper the sorrow, the less tongue it has,’; said the rabbis.
A6G 1441 Thus Caroline Norton, who was the subject of a trumped up crim. con. suit and who lost the custody of her children, is portrayed as a simple victim, albeit in her case not a passive one.
A75 331 Humans are synchronized to a 24-hour cycle, however, and so time-cues must exist, albeit often artificial ones.
AA9 906 It is a measure of Quisling’s obstinacy that he was back as `;premier’; –; albeit the puppet of Reichskommissar Josef Terboven –; within two years, thus ensuring that he shared the guilt for the occupation war-crimes for which he was duly shot in 1945.
ABF 346 Darwin’s idea of `;survival of the fittest’; found a home in political philosophy in the form (albeit distorted) of social darwinism.
AHC 1171 Indeed, Mr Voss had last year written to The Daily Telegraph extolling the place –; `;for patrons who wish to relax in comfort and splendour and enjoy the delights of haute cuisine’; –; and complaining that it wasn’t fair that Paddy Burt had written about a nearby Dorset establishment (albeit unfavourably).

The underlined codes at the beginning of the line indicate the actual source of each sentence, which is very handy for referential purposes, for instance, if there is a need to find out where a particular sentence comes from.
Another possibility for English teachers to make use of on-line concordancers is to create exercises for their students that regular textbooks simply do not have.  Since I am involved in training students for Cambridge University CAE examination, I often run into problems of finding adequate amount of materials for vocabulary practice.  When my students need extra practice in vocabulary items, or when certain words have meanings which are similar, but not exactly the same, I go on-line and copy and paste those sentences where the words that cause difficulties are used in the contexts that concordancers provide. Below are two sets of sentences (part a) that are focused on the differences in meaning between two verbs to ensure and to assure, which are looked at separately.  Part b) gives a chance to differentiate between the two verbs in a jumbled set of sentences. (The keys are provided in brackets on the right).

1    as the commune program, which will ensure agricultural  poverty for years. Th
2    ollowing from any decision  can he ensure attention to the practical details
3     the rights  of the individual **h ensure his development **h enlarge  his op
4    ponents of single elements tend to ensure predominance  of that element witho
5     Good operational intelligence can ensure sound planning,  greatly reduce for

1    y protect the work table, but also assure a clean  breakthrough. Another meth
2     or sufficiently secured so as to  assure a reasonable chance of repayment. T
3   e Technique tells the readers- “We assure you that the total number of peopl
4    ion  on Liberated Europe seemed to assure democratic institutions  on the Wes
5    d before desegregation, how can we assure equal opportunity? In fact, in

1   ble destruction.  But I once again ______ all peoples and all nations  that t                         (assure)
2    y of minor scraps along the way to ______ that you understand what the word                  (ensure)
3    ry, reflects our determination  to ______ the peace and the future of freed                         (ensure)
4   r before you leave for Europe will ______ you of  having one on tap when you                     (assure)
5    is small pore size was required to ______ uniformity of the flow leaving the                        (ensure)

As well as being guided by the teacher, students who have access to the Internet may work with concordancers independently, or as part of their homework.  Here is another example of a task, which requires the knowledge of a very precise distinction between the given variants (typical CAE task): 

Using a concordancer, decide which word fits the gap in the sentence

“The _________ of these volunteers for hard work is amazing.”
(a) ability; b) capacity; c) capability
By studying the contexts in which each of the three words is used, the students should be able to see that it is only with the word capacity that the preposition for is used after the prepositional object which follows the verb.
Finally, my last example includes such an interesting area of vocabulary study as new forms of words being used in English.  There are books, e.g. English Observed by R. Mc Andrew which assert that there is a tendency in British English to use a particular adjective with this or that preposition, or that together with more traditional forms of verbs (past and perfect), some other forms are equally popular.  In order to find out the extent to which each of such claims is true, concordancers can be employed.  This way of finding out to what extent certain word forms have caught on in British English is quite simple and straightforward.  After inserting the words with preposition into the search screen, you will be able to see, for instance, which of these are the most frequently used:
Quitted/ lighted/ waked; (the British National Corpus has found 13 solutions for quitted; 240 solutions for lighted, and only 4 for waked)

Different from / different to/ different than (this is the actual order of frequency of usage)

This type of search may be very useful should your students decide to write a form that is not the one that you taught him/her.  It would probably be easier for you to support your argument in favour or against the student’s choice, when you had this kind of reference.
The exercises described above show that the Internet resources, on-line concordancers in particular, could be regarded as an extra tool for creation of a variety of supplementary materials by English language teachers for their students.  Although they sometimes could be quite time-consuming, the students find them very useful and helpful in mastering those areas of English language studies, which textbooks often do not reach. I encourage everyone to try and use concordancer at least once to be able to see how rewarding and benefitial for the students the activities you create can be.
P.S. A good webpage where links to several concordancers can be found is (towards the bottom of the page).

1. C.Tribble & G. Jones Concordances in the Classroom, Longman, 1990
2. R. Mc Andrew, English Observed, LTP, 1994

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