“Eccentric” or “Strange”: Using Online Corpora to Navigate Connotation

Book Writer & Publisher: 
Greggory J. Wroblewski, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Collocation, connotation, corpus, denotation, pragmatics
  • Learner English level: High intermediate to advanced
  • Learner maturity: University and above
  • Preparation time: 15 minutes
  • Activity time: 60 – 90 minutes (depending on class size)
  • Materials: Mobile devices or internet-connected PCs; projector; black- or whiteboard

Navigating the connotations of English words with similar semantic meanings can be extremely difficult for learners, as words’ associations can be culturally determined and their most natural collocates frequently selected by referencing an “internal corpus” that is much more extensive in a fluent speaker. The current activity is designed to highlight how distinctions between adjective pairs with similar denotations can be gleaned by examining their collocates and familiarize learners with online resources to hone this particular pragmatic competence.


Prior to class, attain a working knowledge of an online corpus search portal such as Just the Word (<http://www.just-the-word.com/>) or Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (<http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/>), and for each pair of students in the class, prepare at least one pair of adjectives (see Appendix) for describing people. These adjective pairs are semantically similar but have different connotations.


Step 1: Demonstrate, using a PC-connected projector, the basic functionality of the chosen corpus search engine(s) vis-à-vis finding a word’s most frequent collocates.

Step 2: Distribute the attached worksheet to each student and, as a group, help the students attempt to answer some or all of the following questions as scaffolding:

  • Do the nouns these adjectives appear with have positive or negative connotations unto themselves (e.g. inquisitive child, nosy kid)? 
  • What other adjectives do these words most frequently appear with? Do they have positive or negative connotations (e.g. cocky and arrogant vs. calm and self-assured)?
  • What do the adverbs that most frequently modify these adjectives connote (e.g. boldly assertive vs. overly aggressive)?
  • Do any of the adjectives have a negative connotation in one context but a positive one in another (e.g. “skinny and malnourished stray dog” vs.  “I’d kill to be as skinny as her”)? 

Step 3: Group the students into pairs, and assign adjective pairs to each set of students. Ask students to answer some or all of the questions above using online corpus search portals, electronic dictionaries, etc.

Step 4: Have each pair of students briefly summarize their findings in front of the class: e.g., “Fat is almost always negative and is usually used as an insult, while overweight seems to be more neutral. Here are a couple of examples we found. . .” For larger classes in which time is a factor, this summary can be set as a homework assignment, in which each pair prepares a short Word document detailing their findings to submit the following class. The teacher can then compile all of the summaries and distribute the overall results back to the class at a later time.

Step 5: Before moving on to the next group, verify comprehension and clarify any remaining ambiguities.

Step 6: End the lesson by eliciting any analogous word pairs from the students’ own native language backgrounds.


The present activity is easy to implement, and its format can also be adapted to investigate semantically similar noun pairs in following lessons as well. In addition to its practical usefulness, the activity can also act as a springboard to intercultural understanding by discussing how certain associations may have come to exist through the years. In my experience, this particular task seems to have led to better-informed word selection in conversation and in the classroom, and learners showed an increased openness to using these helpful online resources when preparing written compositions afterwards. 


A handout is available below: