Your point is well taken. It reminds us of an important
distinction: corpus linguistics concerns itself with what
*does* occur (more strictly, with what *has* occurred).
Theoretical linguistics (at any rate, Chomskyan theoretical
linguistics) concerns itself with what *might* occur. Given
statistics such as that in most corpora 2% of the types
account for over 80% of the tokens (not to mention all the
types which *might* occur but don't - e.g. inventions from
the whole cloth of native phonology, or names and other
borrowings from foreign languages -- the distinction between
the probable and the possible seems an important one.
So I guess one's definition of "the most interesting
phenomena" is a matter of taste or application. From a
practical engineering point of view [I sit surrounded by
engineers!], robust processing of the probable seems a more
achievable and realistic goal than even imperfect processing
of all possibilities.
From: David Wible [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2001 11:59 PM
To: Patrick Hanks; firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: Re: Corpora: Evidence and intuition
Patrick mentions theoretical linguists using the doubts about the
representativeness of corpora to cast doubt on results or conclusions
by linguists using corpora. In my experience, the criticisms are more
likely of almost the opposite sort: that is, those inclined to criticize
corpus research suggest that some of the most interesting phenomena
speaker's knowledge is not the stuff that s/he hears examples of often
(stuff that would presumably then occur frequently in corpora), but the
reverse: strong intuitions about uses they perhaps have never
Isn't it these sorts of data and not those that are amply represented in
'representative' corpora that make us ask: how did they ever come to
----- Original Message -----
From: "Patrick Hanks" <email@example.com>
Cc: "CPA" <CPA@lingomotors.com>
Sent: Thursday, November 01, 2001 7:32 AM
Subject: Corpora: Evidence and intuition
A late contribution to the discussion sparked by Sebastian Hoffmann:
I recently asked a few colleagues who are not corpus linguists to make
a couple of natural sentences using the word "total" as verb. The
typically fall into two classes:
1. [[Driver]] total [[Vehicle]]
e.g. Carina totaled the car.
2. [[Person]] total [[Number]]
e.g. John totaled the column of figures.
In the British and American corpora that we are currently using (in
BNC, Reuters, and 4 years of AP), sense 1 accounts for less than 1% of
of the verb and sense 2 is even rarer - perfectly plausible, but next to
Over 98% of corpus uses of this verb fall into the following pattern:
3. [[Entity (often plural)]] total [[Number | Amount]]
e.g. Sales totaled 6 million.
Why did this *very* common pattern of use not spring immediately to the
minds of ordinary native speakers of british or American English?
a) Introspection as a technique favors human subject roles.
b) 3 is really a copula, "not a real verb".
c) There is an inverse relationship between cognitive salience
Re 3, see (Hanks 1990), where I argued that people register the odd or
and fail to register what we do regularly or continuously. (Think of
putting his/her hand on your arm. Now think of someone having had
on your arm all afternoon.)
Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is a familiar one in lexical
first noticed by Cobuilders working on the Cobuild 7.3 million word
in about 1983. Of course, 'total' is a fairly dramatic example, but
dramatic cases abound, e.g. the "delexical verbs" (known in America as
verbs). Ask people to make up examples for common uses of "take" and
few of them will think of [[Duration]]:
4. How long will it take?
5. It only took a few minutes.
Interestingly, the phenomenon is occasionally denied by some theoretical
linguists and other intelligent people, corpus evidence to the contrary
notwithstanding. The opening shot is usually "Your corpus is not
representative" (?!). Why do they do this? Surely it cannot be as
as wishing to preserve introspection as a research technique?
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