Corpus of Contemporary American English

Corpus of Contemporary American English

October 21, 2015

Brigham Young University hosts the Corpus of Contemporary American English (see: http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/ ), a database of some 450 million words, that allows you to look up how words are used in thousands of different sources.    It bills itself as the largest such resource of its kind in English.   It includes an option that shows various collocates of a word - words that are frequently paired with the term that you are trying to define.    It is very common for attorneys to use photocopies of dictionary definitions as exhibits at depositions.   The Corpus allows you to determine the common usage of words with far more precision.     

 

The Corpus was recently the subject of a concurrence by Justice Lee of the Utah Supreme Court in State v. Rasabout .   While the main opinion criticized Justice Lee for conducting linguistics research without allowing the petitioner to present conflicting evidence, his concurrence provides a detailed endorsement of the giant database.   One of the issues in the case was the meaning of the word, 'discharge' in a statute concerning firearms - whether it means to empty a gun of bullets, or to simply fire it once.    The more common usage of the term would prevail. 

 

Justice Lee tried to determine how 'discharge' was most commonly used by both making reference to the Coprus and running a Google News search.  He notes that with Google News "hit counts are unreliable because the Google algorithm is unknown, as underscored by the fact that different searches at different times on different computers may reveal very different results".     It is easy to replicate search results in the Corpus, and unlike in Google news it's easy to account for all forms of a word, or delineate the way in which it is used. 

When searching in the database it's possible to search for all forms of word by placing a variation in brackets  E.g., [privilege] returns, privilege; privileges; privileged; and privileging.   If you use the qualifiers [n*] and [v*] only the uses of a word as a noun or verb will be returned.     Searches can be saved and linked to for others to reference.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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