LINGUIST List 23.4972

Wed Nov 28 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Lexicography; English: Carter (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 28-Nov-2012
From: Vaughan Mak <>
Subject: Vocabulary
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Book announced at

Author: Ronald CarterTitle: VocabularySubtitle: Applied Linguistic PerspectivesSeries Title: Routledge Linguistics ClassicsPublisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)Year: 2012

Reviewer: Vaughan Mak, Hong Kong Baptist University

AUTHOR: Carter, RonaldTITLE: VocabularySUBTITLE: Applied Linguistic PerspectivesSERIES TITLE: Routledge Linguistics ClassicsPUBLISHER: RoutledgeYEAR: 2011

Vaughan Mak, College of International Education, Hong Kong Baptist University


First published in 1998, this book is an introduction to the study ofvocabulary with a slant towards how such knowledge can be applied to practicalfields such as literary analysis, lexicography, and language teaching. Thesecond edition, which has just come out, includes updates on major domains invocabulary studies, particularly the part played by computational analysis.

The book is divided into three parts: Part I, “Foundations”, deals with basicconcepts and approaches to the study of vocabulary; Part II, “Reviews”,examines how vocabulary study is applied to different fields to yield deeperinsights into the nature of language, language use, and language teaching;Part III, “Case studies”, is considerably more scholarly in orientation,consisting of two informant-based studies that involve relatively advancedlexical analysis.

Before the book embarks on its three-part discussion in its main body, thereis a prelude entitled “Vocabulary and applied linguistics: recent past andnearer future”. It delineates the major developments in linguistics that havehad a bearing on vocabulary study in three main aspects: the understanding ofthe nature of formulaic language; advances in vocabulary learning and teachingin relation to formulaic language, both from processing and performanceperspectives; and aspects of lexical (re-)formation in literary creativity.All of these areas have been enhanced or enabled with the advent of corpusanalytic techniques.

Part I consists of four chapters. Chapter 1, “What’s in a word”, explores thefollowing basic questions: “What makes a word a word?”; What is a word made upof?”; “How can words be classified and connected?”. It is in this chapter thatall the most basic concepts and terminology in semantics are clearly definedand illustrated with examples. Chapter 2, “The notion of core vocabulary”, isa short but important chapter. It defines what “core” means in vocabulary andhow it can be tested with a series of tools. More importantly, it shows howcore vocabulary is in fact more integrated into basic sentence structures, andhow dominantly such core vocabulary figures in realizing theexpressive-emotive potential of language. Chapter 3, “Words and patterns”, iscentred on one key concept of lexical study, collocation (i.e. the companythat words keep with each other). The emphasis of the chapter is placed onexplaining how collocation can be understood in terms of a continuum offixedness, and how somewhere along the continuum, a wealth of lexical patternsemerges that not only shapes or conditions the structure of sentences, butalso prescribes specific connotative meaning -- a concept now commonly knownas ‘semantic prosody’. Chapter 4, “Lexis and discourse”, addresses severalslightly advanced topics in vocabulary studies, including: cohesion (i.e. “themeans by which texts are linguistically connected” (87)); lexical signaling(i.e. “lexical items which make explicit the clause relation between thematrix clause and the preceding clause or sentence” (89)); “discourse markers”(i.e. items which often “indicate a boundary between what has gone before anda new stage in the discourse” (98)); and coherence (i.e. “not merely a featureof text … but a conceptual network which has to be recognized and interpretedby the sender and the reader of a text” (108)). While the meaning of thesequoted definitions may not seem immediately clear, the chapter providesnumerous corpus-based examples that help readers grasp these concepts and seetheir distinctions and inter-connections.

Part II covers three chapters that exemplify the applied linguisticperspective of vocabulary study. Chapter 5, “Lexis and literary stylistics”,explores how our multi-faceted and multi-layered understanding of wordsenhances the way we interpret literature. For example, new discoveries havebeen made in lexical associations, and new insights have been obtained as tohow figurative language works in our mind. Chapter 6, “Lexis andlexicography”, is a reader-friendly introduction to how vocabulary study hasprofitably informed the enterprise of dictionary-making. Grammar turns out tobe more lexically-based than conventionally imagined, and Carter makes thatclear by expounding on the monumental Cobuild Project, which literallyrevolutionized the way dictionaries are conceived and made with the use ofcorpora, and inspired similar projects that have all deepened and expanded ourunderstanding of the patterns and behaviors of language. Chapter 7, “Learningand teaching vocabulary”, is the longest chapter in the book. It discusses howvocabulary is acquired in both L1 and L2 contexts. Key concepts and paradigmsare covered, though a heavier emphasis is given to L2 vocabulary learning. Inline with that is an elaborate section on L2 vocabulary teaching, with a rangeof practical approaches and methods that are readily utilizable in theclassroom.

Part III is composed of two short chapters, both of which are reports onstudies conducted about informants. Chapter 8, “Case study: lexis, tones andironies”, is a piece of research that examines how irony works in literarytexts. It argues that irony achieves its effect, at least in part, by lexicalpatterns as well as readers’ extra-textual knowledge of different genres, andas such, the research represents an essentially pragmatic approach toanalysis. Chapter 9, “Case study: style, lexis and the dictionary”, is anexample of a more in-depth study of the different nuances of word meaning. Byemploying different scales such as “evaluation”, “potency” and “formality”(252) as tools of measurement, Carter explores and indicates how people (i.e.informants) may distinguish closely associated words and how that might bearon the notion of core vocabulary. The study also reveals more clearly howcultural meanings may be embedded in closely associated words, and thatdictionary entries should find ways to present or explain such information tolanguage learners.


Indeed, the book is what the name of the series indicates, one of thelinguistic classics. Renowned for his work in stylistics, Carter has, over thepast few decades, applied and extended his expertise to English languageteaching and applied linguistics in general, thus privileging these fieldswith enlightenment from his new discoveries and insights. The book“Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspectives” is in and of itself a remarkablepiece of linguistic work, embracing the basics while addressing topics orareas of particular interest or technicality. It will not only be a good textfor beginners of linguistics who are interested in vocabulary as an object ofstudy, but will also appeal to more advanced readers who are well aware of theinterdisciplinary nature of various linguistic disciplines and are thereforelooking to see how lexical study can link them all up and produce analysesthat may at once be both challenging and inspiring.

To be more specific, the four chapters in Part I should be essential readingfor students taking a course in vocabulary or semantics in any linguistics orELT / TESOL programme. In addition, Chapter 7, “Learning and teachingvocabulary”, is a must-read for language teachers, both novices and veterans,since it: (1) provides a succinct historical background to vocabularyteaching; (2) covers key classical studies related to vocabulary developmentin first and second language acquisition; (3) outlines recent trends inresearch on vocabulary learning; and (4) reviews common methods and tools forteaching vocabulary. The last part is especially useful to practitioners, withconcrete strategies and activities explained and illustrated, including: wordsin context, word sets and grids, cloze procedures and discourse cloze, andcorpus-based word lists. Certainly, the discussion will suffer in comparisonto full-length treatments such as Nation (1990) and Schmitt (2000), but giventhe limitations of space, Carter has still done a very good job of givingTESOL professionals “a crash course”, so to speak, on the teaching ofvocabulary.

While the book is a gem for beginners and more advanced readers, it shouldalso be of considerable interest to linguistic researchers. One type ofresearcher who will benefit from this book is a stylistician, whose approachto literary works is primarily informed by linguistic theories and principles.The two sections on literary analysis in the book, Chapters 5 and 8, representtwo levels of lexis-centred enquiry into literary texts. Chapter 5, “Lexis andliterary stylistics”, is a more general and reader-friendly discussion on howa multi-dimensional understanding of word meaning and association can yieldstronger and more precise literary interpretation. In particular, this chapterexplores the argument on whether words are selectively configured into a“literary lexicon” (132), thus giving rise to a “literariness” in language anda “literary competence” (132) that lies in the ordinary reader. In relation toquestions like this, Carter conducted an informant study which accessedindividual interpretive procedures through a questionnaire enquiring intoreaders’ responses to a poem by W. H. Auden. This approach found a fullerexpression in scale and depth in a related study, the major findings of whichare reported in Chapter 8. What is most recommendable about this chapter isthe inclusion of sample informant tests used in the study, accompanied by anillustration of how the results are to be analysed and interpreted. Thechapter is therefore a prime example of how a “reader-response” study can bedesigned with ingenuity to yield refreshing insights into analyses that wouldotherwise have appeared impressionistic, as is often unjustly claimed aboutliterary interpretation. Although similar sample tests are not made availablein Chapter 9, the case study there still provides excellent research ideasabout how to use informants to reinforce a study on associative meaning interms of its inter-subjectivity and generalisability. Meanwhile, researcherswho are interested in corpus research will find the bibliography of languagecorpora in the back of the book a delightful wealth of resources.

Indeed, there are not many drawbacks to the book. One minor shortcoming may bethe omission of Prototype Theory altogether in Chapter 1, “What’s in a word”.Whereas Componential Analysis and Structural Semantics as approaches to thestudy of meaning are quite adequately discussed, the concept of prototype(i.e. understanding meaning by way of the best example in a category) is nottouched upon at all. Even a brief exposition of the theory would do well tomake the discussion on semantic approaches slightly more complete in itscoverage. Similarly, in Chapter 3, “Words and patterns”, dozens of terms --even similar ones -- are given due attention and meticulously explained, butthe concept of “phraseology”, which is very common in collocation studies,goes totally missing. Also missing in the discussion on collocation is asection about the use of common, simple statistical techniques employed incorpus linguistics, such as those for measuring the significance or strengthof collocation. Carter makes it quite clear that corpus techniques areinstrumental to making new discoveries in lexical studies; and if collocationhas a central place in his approach to lexis, it would only make more sensefor him to show how collocation can be better empirically harnessed withcomputational procedures to explain language structures.

Meanwhile, there is also some room for improvement regarding effectivelyupdating the contents of the book. One clear example can be found, again, inChapter 3. It expounds on how words co-pattern with one another to differentextents of strength and predictability; but when examining these differentword patterns, which Carter refers to as “idioms galore” (74), he is stillbasing his discussion on a taxonomy that originated in 1984, which espouses 14main and sub-categories and is therefore hardly a neat and accessibleframework, not to mention dated in nature. Carter does address the recentupdates in terminology and categorization, but only does so in the prelude tothe book, where he mainly highlights major studies. It would have been muchmore helpful if he had incorporated these updates into Chapter 3 itself andcome up with a trimmer version of “idioms galore” that is more consolidatedand up-to-date.

Nevertheless, “Vocabulary: Applied Linguistic Perspective” stands as a highlyreadable academic text that serves well to both inform and inspire. Thebreadth of its coverage is highly satisfying, while the depth of its insightsmay well bring intellectual sparks. I would strongly recommend this book, evensimply as a reference for a linguistics course.


Nation, I. S. P. (1990). Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinleand Heinle.

Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.


Vaughan Mak is a Senior Lecturer at the College of International Educationunder Hong Kong Baptist University. He is currently teaching academic writingand linguistics courses to college students. He is interested in research oncorpus linguistics and corpus-driven grammar, pragmatics, text and discourseanalysis, and stylistics. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the pragmaticsand phraseology of the introductory-it construction.

Page Updated: 28-Nov-2012