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How I Write and Learn

The Word and Phrase Tool: Vocabulary and Writing in Academia

By Devin, a Writing Coach

The Word and Phrase Tool is a resource that I use to answer questions about my language use. How is this word usually used in a sentence? Does this sound right? Is this formal enough? All of these come to mind as I write. While a dictionary or a thesaurus can help me research these questions, I sometimes want a collection of real examples of the way language is used in real sentences. That language resource exists: it’s called a corpus.

Corpora and the Word and Phrase Tool

A corpus is a collection of language examples. The one I’ll look at today–the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)–was created by Professor Mark Davies. It contains more than 1 billion words, in nearly a half-million texts, evenly divided across six genres (TV/movie subtitles, spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic journals) to give writers a sense of how specific word usages vary in different contexts. The corpus even details how language use differs between different academic disciplines.

In 2012, Prof. Davies released the Word and Phrase Tool, which allows users to perform queries within the COCA using a web interface. The tool is a free, powerful, and simple language tool that I think should be in every writer’s repertoire. That said, the website itself has a bit of a learning curve. I’ll admit that it can be intimidating at first. But, as I worked through some of the examples below, I gradually familiarized myself with the tool and its functions.

Using the Word and Phrase Tool

To access the Word and Phrase Tool, I went to The tool offers two main functions. The first function, the frequency list, lets me search for usage information about particular words. The second function, input/analyze texts, uploads phrases or larger blocks of text to analyze how our language use compares to examples in the corpus. For today, I’m just going to focus on the first function, so I clicked on the “Frequency list” link and looked at the search bar in the upper-left part of the screen.

A screenshot showing the Word and Phrase Tool interface.

Searching for a word and interpreting results

I’m looking for a synonym of “praise” because I’ve been repeating it in an academic paper about a performance I saw earlier this semester at Memorial Hall. To spice up my language, I’ve consulted a thesaurus for synonyms for praise, and I found the word “lionize.” So, I type “lionize” into the WORD box and click search. The page returns a LOT of information all at once. Too much information, in fact. I need to go through it bit by bit.

A screenshot showing Word and Phrase Tool results for the word "lionize" to illustrate where it is used and how often.
The area to the right of the search box gives information about the word “lionize.” “RANK #” ranks the word within the top 60,000 most frequently-used words in the entire corpus. Words with low ranks are more commonly used than words with higher ranks. “PoS” means part of speech; lionize is listed as “V” for verb. Many words in English belong to multiple parts of speech. If I search for a word that has multiple entries in the upper-right part of the screen, I just click on the “PoS” value (in this example, the purple “V”) to select only a particular form of the word. “TOTAL” indicates the number of times “lionize” appears in the entire corpus, followed by subtotals in each genre. OK, after figuring out all these parts, the corpus is starting to make sense to me.

As it turns out, the frequency information is also shown in a bar graph near the middle of the screen. From this bar, I can see that academic writers seldom use the term “lionize,” but non-academic writers–those who write magazine articles and newspaper articles– seem to like the word. It’s probably not the best choice for my academic paper, but I’ll look at the definition to the right of the bar graph to be sure. “Assign great social importance” isn’t the kind of “praise” I had in mind, so “lionize” is definitely not the synonym I want.

A screenshot of the Word and Phrase Tool showing a bar graph of the frequency of usage for the word "lionize" in different contexts.
After deciding against “lionize,” I go back to the thesaurus. This time, I choose “laud” from the list, look it up in the dictionary, and discover it means “to praise” – great! Just to make sure that “laud” is appropriate for my paper, I also decide to search for the word in the Word and Phrase Tool.

A screenshot of the Word and Phrase Tool showing a bar graph of the frequency of usage for the word "laud" in different contexts.
Although laud is most frequently used in newspapers, it certainly appears in academic writing, too. Also, this definition of “laud” is exactly what I’m looking for, so this seems like a great word for the performance review! But how do I use it in a sentence? Thankfully, collocates can help.

Using collocates to learn how to use a word in a sentence

Look just below the definition of “laud” at the “COLLOCATES” section. Collocates are words that frequently appear together, and this feature can help me find natural sounding combinations for my new word. The paper I’m writing is about a performance I’ve recently seen, and performance just happens to be in the list of words that commonly appear with “laud.”

When I click on “performance” from this list, the bottom part of the screen changes to provide a list of all the sentences in the corpus that contain both “performance” and “laud” close to one another in the sentence. After analyzing the examples, I see that both performers and their performances are lauded, and that someone is lauded for something.

A screenshot of the Word and Phrase Tool showing instances in which "laud" and "performance" are used together in different sentences as well as the genre in which those sentences appear.

Disciplinary differences in word use

So far, we’ve been exploring the frequency list to see how a word’s use can change across the entire corpus, including academic and non-academic contexts. For other projects, sometimes I like to explore how a word is used in different disciplines within academic writing. To do so, I click the ACADEMIC button at the very top of the page, underneath “INFO” in the page title. This part of the page functions identically to what we’ve already seen, except the results are broken down by academic discipline. With this function, I can get a sense of how to use a word in political science for one paper and art history for the next!

Understanding the meaning of no results

Now I’m going to head back to the Word and Phrase Tool’s homepage to search for another synonym for praise: “panegyrize”. That word isn’t used very frequently at all, which results in the blank results screen shown below. That’s important information because it might indicate that the word is archaic or obsolete. It’s probably best to avoid archaic or obsolete language (like panegyrize), as this sort of language will only impede my readers’ understanding.

A screenshot of the Word and Phrase Tool showing no results for the searched word "panegyrize."
On the other hand, finding no results in the COCA does not automatically mean I shouldn’t use the word at all. Many words used by academics are highly specialized and may not appear in the top 60,000 words in the corpus, even if they’re in use. If my search results come back with nothing and I think it’s because the word is specialized language, I verify my suspicion by doing a keyword search through some documents that use the appropriate specialized language (such as journal articles). I may be building my academic vocabulary by using unfamiliar words, but I need to make sure the words aren’t so unusual that my readers don’t know what I’m talking about.

One extra tip for interpreting a “no results” for a word search is to remember that the Word and Phrase Tool only works for word roots. For example, even though “praise” appears in the corpus, “praised” does not. If I find that a seemingly common word isn’t in the corpus, I pop it into a dictionary to see if it has a root form.

Not too much at one time

The Word and Phrase Tool is an incredibly powerful language resource, but it isn’t necessary to use the tool’s advanced capacities for it to be helpful. I find the frequencies, definitions, and collocates most helpful in my writing right now. As I continue to use these and other functions, I get a better sense of what works best for me.

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