The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, July 21, 2017

Home alone

I've been working freelance from home for 17 years now and, with a few interruptions, I've pretty much settled into a routine. So when my partner was made redundant at Easter, one of my first thoughts was that he'd be at home - and in my space - while he looked for his next job. 

We've had 9 weeks now of sharing the same daytime space, but this morning, I packed him off for a weekend camping trip with friends (rather him than me looking at the weather!), which means that I have the house back to myself for 4 whole days! So, partly inspired by Karen White's blog post about sharing a workspace with her husband, it seemed like a good point at which to reflect on how I'm getting on with having someone else in the house.

Plus points:
  • He's always been really good at understanding that when I'm working, I don't want to be disturbed, so generally, I'm upstairs in my office and he stays downstairs and keeps out of my way.
  • It's nice to share a break with someone, whether that's a chat over lunch or an afternoon cup of tea in the sun. He even goes and gets in afternoon cake ... 
  • It's good to have someone to moan to. A few times when I've been really frustrated with work, it's been nice to let off a bit of steam and get a bit of sympathy. 
  • I'm less tied to the working week. When the weather's been nice during the week, we've gone out and done something together and then I've worked a weekend day instead. Both of us having that flexibility is fun.

  • I think I've mentioned before that when I work, I don't sit silently at my desk for hours on end. I like to wander around the house, especially when I'm thinking. So I might compose a tricky email to an editor while I pull up a few weeds in the garden or mull over contexts for practising countable and uncountable nouns while I'm emptying the dishwasher. Or I might just stand and stare out the window while I'm trying to work out the wording for a grammar note. Having someone else in the house makes me a bit more self-conscious, especially as when I go downstairs, he tends to take it as a sign that I'm having a break and I'm ready to chat.
  • And then I talk to myself ... not all the time, but on and off through the day. Sometimes that's exclaiming at a stupid feedback comment out loud or more often it's just reading back something I've written to see how is scans. Again, it feels odd when there's someone else in earshot.
  • Although the shared breaks are nice, they do seem to be longer than the ones I'd have on my own, which eats into my working time. And while it's good to have a mental break too and chat about something non-work, that's also thinking time lost.
Wording while weeding ...

All round, it's actually been fine. It wasn't until today when I realized how excited I was at the prospect of having the place back to myself that I really noticed how having someone else in the house had affected the way I work. And after all, hopefully, it's only a temporary arrangement, so I'm sure we'll continue to muddle through.

So what is this mouse going to do while the cat's away? I suspect I might just work through the whole weekend ... after all, the forecast's rotten ...

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I'm not an academic ...

I've always had a love-hate sort of relationship with academia. I love learning new stuff and getting to grips with ideas, but I get incredibly frustrated by the academic world and a lot of what goes along with it.

Throughout my career I've dipped in and out, with an MA in Applied Linguistics that helped me make the transition from classroom teacher to lexicographer (and beyond), thoughts of a PhD a few years ago that never went past a meeting with a potential supervisor and a bit of reading, then quite a bit of contact with the academic world as I got involved in EAP (both keeping up with ideas and research in EAP and getting to grips with texts from other disciplines). And as some of you will know, my latest foray has been into a slightly new area, embarking on a part-time MA in Forensic Linguistics last October.

I've found exploring the world of Forensic Linguistics fascinating and I've really loved learning new stuff. As my partner will attest to, there were days when I came home absolutely buzzing with new ideas and babbling on about possible new career directions. There was also a lot that I found insanely frustrating though and by the time I got to the end of my first year (the course is 2 years part time), those frustrations were starting to outweigh the excitement. It was a relief to get to the end of term and I realized that the prospect of having to do the same all over again rather filled me with dread ... which is never a good sign! 

I didn't want to give up too easily though, so I signed up for a 4-day summer school in Porto ahead of the Internatonal Association of Forensic Linguists conference, which I also registered for. The summer school consisted of a programme of largely practical workshops led by well-known forensic linguists, significantly, from different universities ... giving me a slightly different angle on the field from my MA course. It was an incredibly intense few days in terms of taking everything in, trying to process ideas to complete the practical tasks, both in the workshops and as 'homework', and in terms of some of the content; murder, drug-dealing, child abuse ... when you're dealing with the law, the topics are rarely light! But it was absolutely fascinating and provided lots of new angles on the field which hadn't cropped up on my course.

It also confirmed though that Forensic Linguistics is still a new field that's very much finding its feet. There aren't yet accepted methods and standards for the analysis of linguistic evidence. Instead, various academics are trying out different avenues of research, some theoretical, some practical, and those actually working with the police and courts almost all have 'day jobs' in academia. Which means that if I wanted to pursue a career, I'd not only have to finish my MA, but I'd really need to do a PhD too before I could even get a foot in the door. Which means more academia ... which brings me back to my problem ...

As I said, I love exercising my grey cells, but there are just some types of academic I really struggle with. They seem to fall into two camps. The first group are concerned with very abstract, esoteric ideas that seem to have little or no bearing on the real world ... study for study's sake. The second type are more practical, dealing with real data, but their studies have become super-narrow; they're investigating pronoun use by 15-year-old female English-French bilinguals in Vanuatu in text messages (that's a made-up example but not far off some of the papers at the conference!!). And when they present their research, they go into the minutiae of how they collected their data and exactly what they found, but never seem to get to any broader conclusions about what it might mean in the wider world. Leaving you with a distinct 'so what?' feeling.

And I can see that there's maybe a place for both types of study to feed into the general knowledge soup that eventually moves the whole field forward. But add onto that the insistence on using unnecessarily impenetrable language and an often shocking lack of rigour and  ... it's just not for me. And even if I wanted to focus on the more applied end of things that most interests me, I'd still have to plough through all that other stuff  - and cite and acknowledge it and 'situate' my work amongst it, etc. And you know, at this stage of my career, I just don't have the patience for often poorly-communicated ideas which seem to be going nowhere.

So somewhere in-between the summer school and looking at the programme for the conference, I decided it was time to cut my losses and step away from academia once again. I did go to a couple of conference plenaries, but I soon realized my motivation had evaporated, so I escaped the stuffy darkened rooms of the university to enjoy the Porto sunshine instead. 

What next? Well, I'll withdraw from the MA and go back to the 'day job' (which, thankfully, I've kept ticking over). I'd like to keep exploring Forensic Linguistics and maybe somewhere along the line find an 'in' where I can use my language analysis skills without jumping through all the academic hoops. Unfortunately though, once I lose my student log-in, I also lose access to all those academic journals. Journal subscription for Christmas maybe ...?

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is café working really workable?

Working from home is fabulous. I’ve been doing it for 17 years now and most of the time I love it.  Just occasionally though, domestic life gets in the way. For the past week and a bit, we’ve had workmen in renovating our bathroom. The work was pencilled in months ago when I had no idea how it’d fit into my work schedule and inevitably, it’s come at exactly the wrong time, just when I’m at my busiest, juggling a couple of projects and really can’t afford the disruption. What with the noise, the mess, no loo and the water and power going on and off, it’s meant that I haven’t been able to work from home.

Because I can’t afford to lose the hours, I’ve worked through the past two weekends, I’ve been squeezing a couple of hours in each evening and I’ve been trying to get in a few hours during the day working in cafés. All of which has left me exhausted, frustrated and having actually achieved very little in the way of work.

The idea of the freelancer sat in acafé with their laptop seems very appealing, but in my experience, it’s really not a workable solution.

I’m lucky that living right in the city centre, I have a huge choice of cafés all within a few minutes’ walk, so I can pick spots that are relatively quiet. Even so, there is inevitable background noise and distractions. And however laid-back the café, you’re always a bit conscious of the time. The waitress has cleared away your coffee cup and you’re wondering how long you can stretch it out before you order something else. Or the free wi-fi only lasts for an hour.

That’s not so bad when you’re working on things that don’t need your full focus and that you can pick up and put down. I soon exhausted those tasks though and found that I was onto new, from-scratch writing that really needed my full attention and an uninterrupted run. In trying to squeeze in bits and pieces here and there, I was being really unproductive – spending ages puzzling over the same thing, going back over stuff again and again and just not moving forward. To the point where I just had to give up and admit it was better to lose a few days.

I generally work at a desktop pc, so decamping to a café means transferring stuff to my laptop. That isn’t that difficult in an age of Dropbox, but it still requires a bit of thought and planning. Making sure you’re always working on the latest version, uploading all those incidental files you might need to refer to and oh yes, coping with slow/intermittent wi-fi.

For me though, the real killer is the physical workspace. As someone who suffers from chronic pain, working at a laptop for an extended period is generally a no-no – you’re hunched over with the screen at completely the wrong height in relation to the keyboard and those horrible fiddly little trackpads are a nightmare. Then when you add to that flimsy café chairs that don’t offer any proper support and a table that’s at the wrong height for the chair, it’s a recipe for disaster. This morning’s café stop, for example, had a nice quiet table with a reasonably comfy chair, but the chair was much too low for the table and within minutes, my shoulder was killing me. This afternoon, I’ve switched to somewhere with a high, bench-style table and a seat that puts me at the right height for my arms to drop down more comfortably onto the keyboard, but I’m perched on a stool with no back, which is starting to take its toll on my lower back.

The good news is, the work on the bathroom is due to finish tomorrow, so fingers crossed, I’ll be back at my own desk by Thursday. And yes, at least I’ll have a nice new bathroom …

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lexicographic leeway: the case of quagmire

Recently, I chatted to Lindsay Clandfield for an episode of the TEFL Commute podcastabout dictionaries. When I listened back to the full episode, lots of things that came up in the chat between Lindsay and his co-presenter, Shaun Wilden had me wanting to chip in. Perhaps one of the most interesting was Shaun's comment that he always tests a new dictionary by looking up the entry for 'quagmire' to see whether the literal, concrete sense (a wet, boggy area of ground) or the metaphorical sense (a messy situation) is listed first. It's an interesting test and, I think, a case worth explaining from a lexicographer's perspective.

The frequency principle:
In general, modern learner's dictionaries are based on the principle of frequency at all levels. Whether it's which words to include, how to order the different senses of a word or which collocations and patterns to illustrate in the example sentences, the most frequent typically take priority. The thinking being that the most frequently used words and senses are likely to be most useful to a learner, so they should get priority. That frequency information comes from a corpus (a computerised database of language consisting of hundreds of millions of words from books, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites, conversation, etc. which we use to represent the language as a whole). The frequency of individual words can be retrieved quite easily, but determining the frequency of different senses comes down to the judgement of the individual lexicographer; computers can't yet distinguish meaning. So when compiling an entry, you might get up a sample of, say, 500 examples and scan through to work out which is the most frequent sense. Looking at 'quagmire' on the British National Corpus (BNC) the split is roughly 54% concrete uses vs. 46% metaphorical uses. Undoubtedly, that would vary for different corpora, but it's clearly a close call in terms of frequency.

Meaning and metaphor:
There are, however, cases where other factors override the general frequency rule. In the case of words with a concrete and a metaphorical meaning, the question is raised as to whether it's easier for a learner to understand a metaphorical usage by explaining the physical one first. Is it easier to understand the idea of a group of politicians bogged down in a metaphorical quagmire, if you can picture them stuck in a load of squelchy mud? Some vocabulary acquisition research argues that encouraging learners to create visual representations of words, either literally as drawings or at least in their mind's eye, aids both comprehension and retention. And of course, there's all the language that comes along with the original metaphor. To understand why we talk about people being bogged down in, sinking into or wading through quagmires (all collocations that came up in my corpus search at metaphorical uses), does it help to understand the concrete, physical sense too?

Styleguides and individual judgments:
Each dictionary will have rules about these types of cases set out in a huge document, called a styleguide, which lexicographers refer to as they're compiling entries. In some cases, that will be a hard-and-fast rule (frequency always first or concrete before metaphor), but often the styleguide will leave it down to the judgement of the individual compiler to weigh up the relative frequencies of the two senses and how useful the physical sense is in understanding the metaphorical one. That's why you'll find a different treatment of 'quagmire' in different learner's dictionaries (Oxford and Cambridge go for concrete first, COBUILD and Macmillan start with the metaphorical usage); it's one of those cases where you could just argue either way.

I'll leave you with a few more to think about yourself - if you were explaining the metaphorical uses of these in the classroom, would you start by describing the concrete, physical sense first or not? Which factors would influence your decision?

inundate, swamp, battle, grasp, tweet, mammoth, giant, nightmare

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