Archive for May, 2009

How are dictionaries made?

Posted on May 24th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Etymology, Words | Leave a Comment »

dictionaryOK, so this probably isn’t a question that comes to mind a lot, if ever. A dictionary is there to look up a spelling or check a definition – where the spelling or definition comes from, and who wrote it, is not usually a cause of concern.

However, I’ve been reading an article that mentioned the Oxford Corpus, a language project at Oxford University in England that provides the basis for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), one of the most influential and authoritative texts on the English language. But what is the Corpus?

A corpus is a collection of texts of written (or spoken) language presented in electronic form. It provides the evidence of how language is used in real situations, from which lexicographers can write accurate and meaningful dictionary entries. The Oxford English Corpus is at the heart of dictionary-making in Oxford in the 21st century and ensures that we can track and record the very latest developments in language today. By analysing the corpus and using special software, we can see words in context and find out how new words and senses are emerging, as well as spotting other trends in usage, spelling, world English, and so on.

The corpus currently contains over 2 billion words (as of Spring 2006), and draws them from all over the English speaking world, not just the UK. Two billion seems like a huge amount, but they note that the count is not 2 billion different words – the word ‘the’ on its own makes up about 100 million entries.

From these two billion words the OED is compiled, with the last comprehensive dictionary published in 1989. This second edition ran to twenty volumes with supplements printed in the 1990’s. Since 1990, the dictionary researchers have been working on reviewing the whole dictionary rather than just adding to it – no word yet on when the final version will be published.

Feeling a little overwhelmed by all those words? Well, the OED compact contains a mere 145,000 words, phrases and definitions.


No Child Left Behind

Posted on May 20th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition | Comments Off

George Bush, helping out kidsFormer US President George Bush is well known for his gaffes, but as it turns out, he may actually be helping kids “read good” after all.

The Guardian reports that his derided No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law may actually be helping children whose primary language is not English.

Education experts say that for English language learners in particular, the law has had some benefits. Because NCLB requires such students to be tracked as a subgroup, educators now weigh more seriously what is working, what is not working, and what could work with ELLs.

Read the rest of the article here.

Formal letter writing

Posted on May 17th, 2009by Michelle
In English, Hints and Tips | Leave a Comment »

Writing formal letters, especially covering letters for job applications, can be a daunting task. You’ve got to start off with the correct salutation, clearly and concisely convey your message, and then there’s the sign-off. Is it “sincerely“? Or “faithfully“? “Best wishes“? “Kind regards“?

The rules are fairly simple. If your salutation is “Dear Sir/Madam”, always use “yours faithfully“. If addressing a person by name (for example, “Dear Mr Jones,”), you should use “yours sincerely“. Taking out the “yours” from “yours sincerely” is also an acceptable alternative.

Best wishes“, “kind regards” and the like are much more informal. They can be used between friends and work colleagues who have established a relationship. I like “kind regards” as an email sign-off as it denotes more friendliness than “regards” whilst also maintaining a formal and professional air. Anything that involves “hugs” should be kept strictly between close personal friends!

An extra thing to note is that whether using ‘sincerely’ or ‘faithfully’, the first letter is never capitalized.

There’s a handy guide here with some good opening and closing lines as well as setting out “yours faithfully” and “yours sincerely” as I have explained above.

Melbourne Exhibition: Books and Ideas

Posted on May 14th, 2009by Michelle
In Alphabet, Events | Leave a Comment »

Books and IdeasIf you’re lucky enough to be in or near Melbourne, Australia at the moment, the State Library of Victoria has a great exhibition called Mirror of the World: Books & Ideas.

The introduction to the exhibition states that

books are mirrors of many worlds: worlds here and distant, past and present, real and imagined. Through text and image, they act as keepers of ideas, of knowledge and of stories.

With many of the rare and historically significant books in the Library’s collections on display, it includes a cuneiform tablet from approximately 2500 BC. Cuneiform is one of the precursors to the modern twenty six letter alphabet we use today.

On display are books from approximately the Middle Ages through to the present day, and explore different themes including the early history of books and printing, which includes a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible.

More recent books include a collection of Penguin paperbacks and a display on Peter Carey, one of Victoria’s most prominent authors (he wrote the True History of the Kelly Gang which won the 2001 Man Booker Prize).

Definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re a book geek like me.

IELTS – the best test?

Posted on May 12th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, English, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

The IELTS (International English Language Testing System) is an internationally recognised test for English language proficiency. Originally used by schools and universities to check if a potential student had a good enough level of English to study, it has spread to become the standard used by companies and even immigration authorities.

These new uses are now being questioned, however:

…some language assessment experts are concerned that a test designed to evaluate candidates’ performance in English in an educational setting could be a less effective measure of the skills people will need at work or as they settle in new countries. There are also signs that some immigration authorities are starting to question their dependence on Ielts.

The article goes on to say:

According to Kieran O’Loughlin, senior lecturer at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Ielts’s dominant role in the visa system has fuelled its wider uptake in Australia. He says that the test provides a good measure of the proficiency of users of English who are in the competent-to-good range, but it is less discriminating at lower levels of proficiency.

“Governments, educational institutions and professional associations have been far too quick to adapt the test for whatever agenda they have. Its suitability for these purposes needs much stronger scrutiny,” he said.
But Australia’s reliance on Ielts could be about to change if an evaluation of other tests, launched by the government last year, is successful. The Department for Immigration and Citizenship (Diac) says that it is considering other tests in response to lobbying from exam providers and because of concerns that demand will not be met by Ielts alone.

It will be interesting to see what impact this has, especially on migrants.

Read the full article here.


Posted on May 9th, 2009by Michelle
In Hints and Tips | Leave a Comment »

interrobangWhat’s an interrobang? It’s a nonstandard English punctuation mark that combines the exclamation mark (!) and the question mark (?).

When you’re asking a question that’s also an exclamation (or vice versa), you would normally place both exclamation and question marks at the end – “What is that?!” for example. With the interrobang however, you get both in one.

This clever idea was thought up in 1962 by American ad agency director Martin K. Speckter, although it’s never become part of standard English punctuation. I certainly have never seen it written anywhere. The name comes from the Latin for “query” (interrogatio) and printer jargon for the exclamation mark (bang).

It’s easy enough to handwrite, although in my writing it comes out looking more like a poorly scribed question mark. If you’re typing, MS Word has the symbol in Wingdings, and some word processors support it with the shortcut Alt+8253.

Football helps language?

Posted on May 7th, 2009by Michelle
In Education, Language acquisition | Leave a Comment »

It may seem an odd connection, but in England football is being used to help children learn new languages.

Watching professional football (or ‘soccer’ as it’s also known), it would seem you’re more likely to pick up bad language in its various forms than anything you’re able to use in conversation.

But Arsenal football club has become involved in the British Education Minister’s drive to get all primary school kids learning a foreign language by 2011. With the team consisting of players from x different countries, and a French manager, it seems a great spot to get kids sneakily learning whilst distracting them with something they’re possibly more interested in.

I’m not sure how much you’d use “goal”/“tor”/“o golo” in every day life, but it’s definitely a start!


Posted on May 4th, 2009by Michelle
In Spelling, UK vs US English, Words | 1 Comment »

It’s easy to get confused with inquire and enquire. They both mean the same thing: to seek information about something or to conduct a formal investigation. But which is which?
Inquire within
The difference between these two is particularly hard to distinguish. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘enquire’ is “to be used for general senses of ‘ask’”. ‘Inquire’, however, is used for when the meaning is more “to make a formal investigation”. The dictionary experts also note that enquire is more common in British English, whilst inquire is more commonly seen in American English. However, a notable exception in British English is that a formal investigation (e.g. by the police) is always an inquiry.

It’s no wonder then that this sign niggled at me. I saw it in Melbourne, Australia, where British English is more common than American. According to the rules above though, they were technically correct!

And some further examples?

You may enquire about a person’s health.
I inquired about the incident last night.

Inquire/enquire can also be a noun – inquiry or enquiry. Thus:

The police were conducting an inquiry.
My friend made an enquiry about my health.

Twittering Kids

Posted on May 3rd, 2009by Michelle
In Education, Technology | Leave a Comment »

New proposals in the UK include teaching blogs and Twitter to primary school children.

The Guardian reports:

children [are] to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication. They must gain “fluency” in handwriting and keyboard skills, and learn how to use a spellchecker alongside how to spell.

As expected, there are a variety of views on this change, with some decrying the notion and calling for more emphasis on traditional reading and writing skills, with others pleased that modern technologies are finally being given a place in schools. But what effect will it have on language?

Personally I’d be worried about the use of spellchecking “alongside” how to spell. If a child does not know how to spell the word already, how would they select it from the options presented by a spellchecker?

Interestingly, the Telegraph reports that higher up the education scale a new Master’s degree is being offered in almost exactly the same thing. Birmingham City University is offering a new MA in Social Media which will teach how to set up blogs and consider the uses of social media (such as Twitter). Does this mean future primary school leavers will be able to skip most of their schooling and advance straight on to master’s level?