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Language learning with Google

Everyone knows how useful Google is in finding information on the internet. And many learners know that typing "word definition" (e.g. "superstitious definition") into the Google search box will return a list of many online dictionaries showing the definition of the search word.

Not all learners, however, realize how important Google can also be in checking grammar, idioms or common word combinations (collocation). In fact, Google is by far the largest existing corpus (or store) of online text and can, with experienced use*, provide answers to virtually every question about the English language.

Imagine, for example, that the learner wants to know whether she should write: at the beginning of the book or in the beginning of the book. If she types in these two search strings, she will get 331,00 hits for the first and 121,00 for the second. She can deduce, therefore, that both expressions are possible but that at the beginning of the book is the safer choice.

Similarly, the learner may not know the grammar of the verb to suggest and want to check the construction "suggested him to .. see a doctor / stop smoking / etc.". If she types in the words suggested him to .., she will get only 200 hits, which is suspiciously low. The string "suggested that he .. " returns 54,800 hits - and clearly this is the correct construction.

* Experienced Googlers know, for example, how to use the wildcard (*) in phrase searching and how to refine results with Boolean operators. Click for information on advanced searching in Google.

Warning: There are millions of pages in English on the internet that contain faulty grammar and usage. There are three main reason for this:

Learners are recommended, therefore, to restrict their language searches to the .edu domain. They can then be more confident that the pages returned will contain correct English.

Ambitious learners may wish to use a concordancer to run sophisticated searches against dedicated English language corpora such as the Collins Cobuild or the British National Corpus. (On this website there is a simple concordancer and an index of the major online corpora.)

Interested site visitors might wish to try Google to see which one in each of the following groups of expressions is correct English:

Google can also be consulted to see which in each of the following groups of expressions is the common usage (collocation):

More about collocation.

New from Google: You can now compare two words or expressions using the Ngrams program, which is part of Google Books. You enter the words or phrases in the input box and click Search lots of books. Google returns your search as a graph, showing the relative popularity (or use) of the words in the books that Google has digitized.

Below is a comparison of "high man" (blue line) and "tall man" (red line):


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)