27.5091, Review: Computational Ling; Text/Corpus Ling: Weisser (2016)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-27-5091. Tue Dec 13 2016. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 27.5091, Review: Computational Ling; Text/Corpus Ling: Weisser (2016)

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Date: Tue, 13 Dec 2016 13:43:11
From: Naomi Truan [truan.naomi at gmail.com]
Subject: Practical Corpus Linguistics

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-1427.html

AUTHOR: Martin  Weisser
TITLE: Practical Corpus Linguistics
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Corpus-Based Language Analysis
PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Naomi Truan, Université Paris Sorbonne - Paris IV

Reviews Editor: Robert A. Cote


In “Practical Corpus Linguistics. An Introduction to Corpus-Based Analysis”,
Martin Weisser offers an overview of methods and techniques to practice Corpus
Linguistics as a student, researcher or teacher. It aims at raising awareness
of how corpus evidence can be used for linguistic purposes. “Practical Corpus
Linguistics” is conceived as a textbook and, therefore, does not engage into
theoretical discussions on Corpus Linguistics. Rather, it puts the emphasis on
how to collect, prepare and archive your data to make it suitable for
linguistic analysis. The book consists of twelve chapters, including the
introduction and the conclusion. Every chapter relies on many practical
exercises commented in detail at the end of each chapter, so that the reader
can test his/her knowledge and understanding throughout the book. 

The first four chapters begin by defining what a corpus is and asking how it
should be collected, to which purpose, and with which implications. Chapter 1,
titled “Introduction”, presents the topic of linguistic data analysis. It
clearly explains what data is and how it relates to one’s research question.
Already relying on corpus examples, it shows the practical and technical
difficulties a corpus linguist might be confronted with, especially when the
data is not ‘clean’ yet, which makes any automatic analysis of the data very
unreliable. Weisser explicitly specifies that theoretical implications of
Corpus Linguistics will not be thoroughly analysed, but that book practical
exercises will enable the corpus linguist to directly experience Corpus
Linguistics ‘at work’. 

In Chapter 2 entitled “What’s Out There? A General Introduction to Corpora”,
Weisser defines a corpus as “any collection of texts that has been
systematically assembled in order to investigate one or more linguistic
phenomena” (p. 13, double emphasis from the author). The distinctions between
various types of corpora (synchronic vs. diachronic, general vs. specific,
static vs. dynamic) are presented in relation with the main corpora available
online (summarised in tables). 

Chapter 3, “Understanding Corpus Design”, presents the main difficulties
regarding the construction of a corpus: sampling, size, legal issues. It then
gives an overview of text structures (text body, headers, footers and
meta-data) with some practical exercises to look for theses pieces of
information in HTML documents, for instance. 

Chapter 4 is devoted to “Finding and Preparing Your Data”. Both existing
corpora available for analysis (Project Gutenberg and Oxford Text Archive,
among others) and corpora that need to be collected by the researcher are
extensively presented. Very practical advice is given including which
extension should  be used for files (.txt) and which encoding format should be
the default one (UTF-8). In order to avoid potential errors when running
statistics on a corpus, Weisser insists on ‘cleaning up’ manually data and
also on documenting and preparing it for further distribution or archiving. 

As Weisser recalls in the conclusion, Chapters 5 to 10 deal with “various
techniques for analysing language data using established methods of corpus
linguistics” (p. 255). “Concordancing” as “an analysis technique that allows
linguists to investigate the occurrences and behaviour of different word forms
in real-life contexts” (p. 67) is the topic of Chapter 5. It focuses on the
free program AntConc. The chapter then deals with the installation on Windows,
Mac and Linux, the selection of the files, and the sorting and saving of the
results, showing “how useful it is to be able to create concordances like this
within a few seconds” (p. 74). 

Chapters 6, “Regular Expressions”, states  that  regular expressions  are “an
important and very powerful means of specifying […] complex search terms for
concordances or computer program for language processing”. The specific
options for quantification of regular expressions are listed, showing how
qualitative and quantitative analysis of the results might be combined. 

Chapter 7, “Understanding Part-of-Speech Tagging and Its Uses” addresses
morpho-syntactic annotation, more commonly referred to as “Part-of-Speech (or
PoS) tagging”, which the author considers to be “one of the main breakthroughs
in corpus linguistics” (p. 101). The Penn Treebank Tagset, a relatively simple
one with only 48 tags, is introduced to provide a first insight into possible
grammatical categories, followed by the CLAWS (Constituent Likelihood
Automatic Word-tagging System), a “far more detailed” (p. 105) one. Both
tagsets are displayed in tables, so that an overview is easily accessible. The
exercices for this chapter include raising awareness of tagging errors, in
order to make the reader more confident in post-editing. 

Modern mega corpora such as the BNC, ANC or COCA are addressed in Chapter 8
“Using Online Interfaces to Query Mega Corpora”. The web-based interfaces
BNCweb and BYU Web-Interfaces are comparatively presented with an emphasis on
the BNCweb. The chapter not only deals with basic standard queries, but also
with the navigation online and with headword and lemma queries. 

Chapter 9 is entitled “Basic Frequency Analysis – or What Can (Single) Words
Tell Us About Texts?”. Nevertheless, “what exactly we should treat as a word”
(p. 147) remains a delicate topic, since compounds (all three variants
icecream, ice-cream and ice cream are to be found in the BNCweb), multi-words
units such as phrasal (prepositional) verbs (e.g. give in/up) or contractions
(e.g. can’t, she’s) “are often largely neglected in the analysis of corpus
data, especially in more automated and quantitatively oriented types of corpus
analysis” (p. 149). As a result, Weisser  introduces the type/token
distinction, ‘type’ being “a representative instance/word form in a frequency
list”, whereas ‘token’ refers to “each individual occurrence of a particular
type” (p. 149). The chapter further explores tools the reader is already
acquainted with at this point, such as AntConc and BNCweb, distinguishing
between word (frequency) lists and keyword lists. 

“Exploring Words in Context” is the aim of Chapter 10, which proposes to
extend the queries to bigger units such as n-grams, word clusters, lexical
phrases, or lexical bundles, and colligations (“the co-occurrence […] of
specific word classes or lexical items with particular parts of speech, p.
200)” in BNCweb, COCA, and AntConc. 

Finally, chapters 11 and 12 show further perspectives for more advanced
linguists. In Chapter 11, “Understanding Markup and Annotation”, the
principles of linguistic annotation, and more specifically of XML files, are
introduced. After a brief history of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup
Language) and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), this chapter is a crash course
into XML annotation and Text Encoding Initiative (TEI): tags, attributes, and
style sheets will no longer be a mystery for you. 
Chapter 12 offers a “Conclusion and Further Perspectives”, recapitulating what
one should have learnt through the book. In order to avoid “specific issues
and errors in later analysis stages” (p. 254-255), preparing the data
carefully and consciously is crucial. Weisser concludes with a link to a
corpora mailing list (http://www.hit.uib.no/corpora/) which might be of
interest for many readers. 


This textbook makes Practical Corpus Linguistics accessible to everyone. The
focus on methodological and technical aspects and the instructive dimension of
the book – nothing is considered obvious or already known – make it very
useful to any corpus linguist aiming at a better understanding of his/her
data, even though one can regret that the emphasis is clearly on English

The prior concern is to show how Corpus Linguistics actually functions and to
raise awareness, and this goal is more than fulfilled. Through the various
exercises, it is very easy to test one’s comprehension and the reader
gradually gains confidence. The educational, sometimes entertaining tone as
well as the glossary also contribute to gradually enhance the reader’s
learning capacities in a field in which many feel insecure, and Weisser
repetitively encourages the reader: “don’t be alarmed if you see a lot of
coding […]. We’ll learn more about this a little later” (p. 35) or “’[d]on’t
despair if you end up with lots of errors in the beginning” (p. 237). 

Moreover, Weisser’s book shows how much data is never ‘given’ (as the Latin
etymology misleadingly says), but is a construction from the researcher, who
is responsible for every step on the way to a corpus: collection, preparation,
analysis, and archive. The documentation should be part of the process, and
this is why Weisser tackles it from the very beginning. 

At the same time, this “book being (only) an introductory textbook” (p. 256),
it might be too elementary for advanced linguist students or researchers. It
is also a pity that the book mainly – if not only – deals with lexical and
morpho-syntactic issues, fully neglecting how pragmatic markers can also be
explored through Corpus Linguistics techniques. Weisser recognizes that one
should not restrict to a kind of lexical or semantic analysis “that largely
ignores the fact that words really only gain their ‘true meanings’ in context”
(p. 193), but still addresses principally lexical research questions, even
though terms of address or discourse markers are briefly discussed in XML
linguistic annotation (p. 238). 

It is all the more unfortunate that Aijmer & Rühlemann (2014) recently showed
how fruitful Corpus Pragmatics combination of pragmatics and corpus
linguistics can be. Discursive, textual and enunciative aspects are also not
tackled. In this respect, the free, open source program TXM
(http://textometrie.ens-lyon.fr/?lang=en), which is very broadly used (mainly
by French speaking scholars since it was developed in France) could also have
been mentioned. 

Despite this limitation, the book is very readable and well structured. It
should accompany scholars at the beginning of any research to raise awareness
about technical issues that are too often overlooked, although they play a
crucial part in linguistic analysis. 


Aijmer, Karin & Christoph Rühlemann. 2014. Corpus Pragmatics. A Handbook.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Naomi Truan is a PhD Student in Contrastive Linguistics at the Université
Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV) and the Freie Universität Berlin (“cotutelle de
these”). Her research interests include Pragmatics, Discourse Analysis, Corpus
Linguistics and Cognitive Linguistics. Her current work focuses on the
category of person, pronouns, terms of address and reported speech in
political discourse in France, Germany and Great-Britain.


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