Corpus Linguistics Anyone?

About a year ago at a symposium at North Carolina A&T, I had an opportunity to meet and talk with Laura Aull, Assistant Professor of English and of the Writing Program at Wake Forest University. I learned that Aull did her doctoral work at the University of Michigan, where she focused on linguistics and especially on using corpus linguistics to compare writing across fields and cultures. Now in her fourth year of teaching, Aull has recently published First-Year University Writing: A Corpus-Based Study with Implications for Pedagogy. (London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015). In an interview, she said that her new book
analyzes over 19,000 essays written by incoming college students from the University of Michigan and Wake Forest for empirical, linguistic features which distinguish first year writers from expert ones.
Having done a couple of very large-scale studies of student writing myself, I was very interested in Aull’s work, and especially about some of her findings. For instance, she found that use of the personal pronoun “I” varies not only across disciplines but also between expert and first-year writers, with the former using “I” primarily to indicate what or how they are going to argue and the latter using “I” to narrate experience. Her research also revealed that expert writers tend to use more neutral words in introducing sources (verbs like “note” or “finds”) while first-year student writers tend to use more loaded words (verbs like “fails” or “ignores”). In addition, she told me, expert writers use more “hedges” or qualifiers than do student writers, who sometimes can come across as more aggressive than they mean to.
I also learned from her how students, and particularly multilingual students, might use large corpora (such as The Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA) to learn how to distinguish between confusing phrases (is it “in regards to” or “in regard to”) or to answer other questions they may have about how expert writers use language in different disciplinary settings.
I’ve recently been reading Aull’s book, and I’m learning a lot from it, so much so that I have asked her to consult with me on how to incorporate some of these findings into tips for student writers in the sixth edition of The Everyday Writer, which I’m revising right now. It’s exhilarating to learn how to begin using corpus linguistics to help first-year writers!

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