Researching new idioms and phrasal verbs

At the end of last year, I had one of those jobs that you start anticipating eagerly over breakfast each morning! I worked on the team updating two Collins COBUILD dictionaries – of phrasal verbs and idioms.


My colleague, Penny Hands, had done some of the initial work of compiling a list of possible new additions, then I had the fun of searching for them using the New Monitor corpus, part of the larger Collins Corpus, made up of the most recent data from both conventional sources (such as print media) and also social media.  I used the initial list as a starting point, but my research led me in all kinds of directions and threw up some new ideas too.

It was a fun job on several levels. Firstly, new language is always fascinating and because phrasal verbs and idioms both tend to be at the more informal end of the register scale, they’re often just inherently quite funny and playful. Then, there’s the technical challenge of constructing corpus searches to find what can be quite variable combinations of words (such as separable phrasal verbs where the object can come between the verb and the particle – push [it/the deadline] back, and variable idioms – drop the mic, drops mic, a mic drop). You want to come up with a search this isn’t too open so that it also finds too much ‘noise’ (examples that aren’t the target phrase), but isn’t too narrow so that it doesn’t find a wide enough range of the possible variations.

My findings then fed in as part of the updates to the new editions which have just come out. My post over on the Collins ELT blog gives a flavour of some of the types of things we found and added.

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