Real-time global English

A little while ago we received an e-mail from the Collins Language Team with the request to review the beta version of their new free online dictionary. Although this is clearly part of a strategy of buzz marketing, I am taking the fact that they found us to mean that this blog is doing well. Specifically, that it is seen as having the audience that I think it should have: academics, language professionals and the general public. So here’s the buzz…

The Collins beta is based on the 4.5 billion word Collins Corpus of English (formerly known as the Bank of English, which was produced by the COBUILD-project). According to the Collins Language Team, this corpus represents “real-time, global English” by keeping track of “new words, language trends and usage by constantly monitoring newspapers, online articles, everyday speech, reports and presentations”.

The dictionary offers a very good range of types of information, and rather more than your average free online dictionary. It begins, of course, with the standard dictionary. This includes the pronunciation for a large number of words, including the most important variant pronunciations where they exist. It also gives synonyms and a link directly to the thesaurus, although once you’re in the thesaurus, there is no link from the thesaurus entries back to the same entry in the dictionary. Perhaps this function will be added later.

I especially like the usage views: ‘usage examples’ ‘commonness’ and ‘usage trends’. Underneath the definitions, a number of example sentences are given which illustrate the different usages of the main entry. What I would like to see added here is which example belongs to which definition of the main entry. The commonness meter tells you how common the word is “in the dictionary”. The data for this is taken from the >10M books in Google Books combined with Collins’ own dataIn the latter case, this would make the usage information much more representative. The usage trends graph traces the changes in usage of your lemma over the past 10, 50, 100 or 500 years. As you can see from my example, the use term “usage” has been increasing steadily between 1972 and 2002.

Flickr image for “usage”

The search results also shows images associated with the lemma, provided by the photo sharing website Flickr. These are supposed to help learners of English but since this is dependent on the way that Flickr-users tag their images, the results aren’t always representative, as you can see from the example of “usage”. Still, a picture can speak a thousand words.

The Collins beta is also a translation dictionary, with French, German and Spanish as the main languages. It also features an automated translator function for a larger number of languages where you can type/paste the text you want translated. There is a lot of ongoing debate on the merits of machine (assisted) translation; I will only say the less you expect, the more satisfied you’ll be. A related feature which I do like a lot is that in the main screen for many entries (both in the dictionary and the thesaurus), there are translations of these words in at least twenty languages, including, for many, their pronunciation.

The lay-out of the search results screen is clean and though there are ads on it, they’re not too intrusive. Personally, I would’ve liked to see a little bit more contrast between the ads and the functions of the dictionary but as it doesn’t really cause any confusion, this is merely a cosmetic issue.

All in all, the Collins beta offers a very satisfying range of lexicographical and usage information, and I think it will be a welcome addition to the bookmarks bar of many academics, students’ and language professionals, as well as the general public.

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About Robin Straaijer

Linguist of English prescriptivism and standards. Lover of photography and comedy.
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2 Responses to Real-time global English

  1. This is a topic which is near to my heart.
    .. Many thanks! Where are your contact details though?

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