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STARTING TO WRITE ENGLISH WITH NO MISTAKES: Module Eight

How to write correct English: Module Eight Video

The problem is that many people have 'fossilised errors': incorrect uses which are
becoming a part of what they write. Here is an example:

"This books are interesting ..."

Probably lots of people seeing that sentence will detect the error immediately (it should
be: "These books are interesting ..."). But this is a common mistake because the words this
and these sound so similar. That’s why this books sounds right to a lot of people. It’s easy
to spot the error here because the sentence only contains 4 words and because I told you
that there is a mistake. But how to find a mistake when it’s in the middle of a long essay
that you wrote?

How can the person who wrote, "This books are interesting ..." spot the error? That's the
problem! After all, that person wrote This books because they think it is correct – they
didn't make the mistake on purpose!

After writing an essay of 250 words you might spend perhaps two hours self-correcting it.
You should take the view that a lot of what you wrote might be incorrect. So ask yourself
about each sentence: "Am I sure that is correct? What evidence do I have?"

If your name is Ana and you have written the sentence 'My name is Ana', then you can be
sure it's correct because you have seen sentences like 'My name is Julie' and 'My name is
John' in books that you know are written in correct English. If you think hard you can feel
that you have a good reason – it's a very common structure which you know you know.

That is the important point: use sentences that you know are correct as models for your
own writing. If you have any doubts, where can you find such sentences? In the
dictionary. If you look up the word this in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary,
you will find that the entry makes very clear with explanations and examples that this is
used before singular nouns and these before plural nouns. Indeed, there is even an example
which starts like this:

These books are ...

I've chosen a very simple example here. But the same goes for other words. For example,
if you have used a preposition after a verb, is it the right preposition? (Prepositions are a
notorious source of error). If you have used another verb after a verb, is the second verb in
the right form? Should it be the infinitive or the -ing form?

JIM LAWLEY & RUBEN CHACÓN BELTRÁN | © UNED 2016


STARTING TO WRITE ENGLISH WITH NO MISTAKES: Module Eight

At first it seems a lot of time – and it is – but it is very efficient use of your time because
you are checking YOUR English, the English you like to use. You will soon find that you
don't need to check so much – because you know you know. That is, you are building up a
body of English phrases and structures which you can use with confidence.

Now I want to introduce you to a tool that will help you a lot. The British National
Corpus. The British National Corpus is a huge online corpus of correct English. A corpus
is a large collection of texts which is held on computer and can therefore be accessed
electronically. And in the case of The British National Corpus you can access it online.

The British National Corpus contains the texts (but not the pictures or photographs) found
in lots of newspapers, periodicals, journals, novels and non-fiction books, letters and
messages, essays, etcetera and the transcripts of lectures, casual everyday conversations,
and radio programmes. All this language (the novels, newspapers, conversations etc) was
produced in the later part of the 20th century. In total the corpus contains approximately
100 million words.

What can we do with such a corpus?

Well if you go to this link:

http://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/

And click “Enter” to move through into the interface itself.

On the left-hand side at the top, under the heading “DISPLAY” select KWIC. Under
“SEARCH STRING” there is a box next to “WORD(S)”; there you can write a word or
phrase. Let’s say we write depend. We click on “SEARCH” and then you will see some
lines of text appear in the white box in the middle. In the blue title line it says:

KEYWORD IN CONTEXT DISPLAY

And there is a number:

3,425 TOKENS

And below this notice are 100 examples of depend in sentences from the corpus. There are
3425 examples of depend and 100 of them are shown to you. They are shown to you in
context – in the sentences from books and newspapers for example which form part of the
corpus. Here is an example – one of the uses of depend in the corpus:

in the system . This feature is intended for users that depend on constant information feeds , such as financial trading

(The colours indicate nouns (in blue), verbs (in pink), prepositions (in yellow).) And on
the left there is this:

JIM LAWLEY & RUBEN CHACÓN BELTRÁN | © UNED 2016


STARTING TO WRITE ENGLISH WITH NO MISTAKES: Module Eight

12 CNK W_non_ac_tech_engin A B C

If you click on this, a page opens which starts like this:

Source information:
.
Date (1985-1994)

Title Computergram international. 253 s-units.

This tells you what the text is and when it was written. And there is also an Expanded
context below this.

This tells you where the sentence comes from. As you can see, it comes from a publication
called Computergram International. It is often useful to know where the sentence comes
from. If it is a published book then you know that it has been carefully written and
carefully edited. That’s important for us on this course because we want to be sure that we
are using good models – models we can rely on. Reliable examples.

The British National Corpus contains approximately 100 million words but ten million
words of that is spoken English. Now, spoken English is not such a good guide to written
English. In spoken English people make mistakes, they change direction in the middle of
the sentence, they stop and then they start again, they talk in a way that is OK for talking
but not for writing where there are different rules. So remember, if you are using the
British National Corpus to check if a phrase is correct in writing, you need to find
evidence in written texts. We can limit our search to written texts by selecting options in
the “SECTIONS” box below “SEARCH STRING”.

In list 1 select “FICTION”, then hold the “Shift” key and select “MAGAZINE”,
“NEWSPAPER”, “NON-ACAD”, “ACADEMIC” and “MISC”. Now click “SEARCH”
again in the box above. This will produce a new set of results beginning with this:

KEYWORD IN CONTEXT DISPLAY

3,257 TOKENS

Now there are 3,257 instances of depend. This is because we have eliminated the spoken
sections of the corpus so instances of depend in those sections are not counted. But we
now know that every example is from written English, not spoken. You will notice that it
is also showing a different 100 examples of depend. This will happen every time you
search. And don’t forget that you can also get examples of depends and depended and
depending …

And if you want, you can also write a phrase; for example, depends of. If you do that you
discover that the phrase depends of occurs ten times in the 100 million words. Here is
an example:

It all depends of course on what is meant by ‘the feminine’.


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JIM LAWLEY & RUBEN CHACÓN BELTRÁN | © UNED 2016


STARTING TO WRITE ENGLISH WITH NO MISTAKES: Module Eight

Ah! Earlier in the course we decided that depends of was wrong – and it was wrong in the
sentence we were looking at, but here we see that there are exceptions. And this is very
normal. The British National Corpus contains approximately 100 million words; that’s a
lot of language. There are lots of things that you wouldn’t have thought were possible –
until you see them. For example, if you ask English speakers if you can use of after depend
they will probably say “no”. Until you say, “And what about it depends of course on the
weather?”. And then they say “Oh yes, I hadn’t thought of that ….”

But remember; just because a phrase in your writing also occurs in the British National
Corpus doesn’t mean that you have used it correctly. Ideally, you need to see the phrase
used by two or three writers in just the way you want to use it.

Now here is the task for this module. I want you to look at this sentence:

Then he said us he had always worked as waiter.

Now, there are two mistakes in that sentence. You can probably see them immediately but
finding the errors is not the task – or not yet anyway. Now, we can divide that sentence
into pairs of words: Then he, he said, said us, us he, he had, had always, always worked,
worked as, as waiter. That’s nine pairs. Notice that most of the words form part of two
pairs: he is the second word in Then he and the first word in he said, for example.

You can look up each pair in the British National Corpus and see how often it occurs. For
example, the pair Then he occurs 5,831 times, and the pair he said occurs 34,434 times.

Your task is to find the numbers for all nine pairs. Which are the two lowest numbers?
Where are the two mistakes in the sentence? As usual, if you have any doubts, then the
forum is the place to discuss this.

(Data cited herein have been extracted from the British


National Corpus Online service, managed by Oxford University
Computing Services on behalf of the BNC Consortium. All
rights in the texts cited are reserved.)

JIM LAWLEY & RUBEN CHACÓN BELTRÁN | © UNED 2016