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Review of  Vocabulary

Reviewer: Vaughan Mak
Book Title: Vocabulary
Book Author: Ronald Carter
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 23.4972

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AUTHOR: Carter, Ronald
TITLE: Vocabulary
SUBTITLE: Applied Linguistic Perspectives
SERIES TITLE: Routledge Linguistics Classics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2011

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


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

The book is divided into three parts: Part I, “Foundations”, deals with basic concepts and approaches to the study of vocabulary; Part II, “Reviews”, examines how vocabulary study is applied to different fields to yield deeper insights 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 advanced lexical analysis.

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

Part I consists of four chapters. Chapter 1, “What’s in a word”, explores the following basic questions: “What makes a word a word?”; What is a word made up of?”; “How can words be classified and connected?”. It is in this chapter that all the most basic concepts and terminology in semantics are clearly defined and illustrated with examples. Chapter 2, “The notion of core vocabulary”, is a short but important chapter. It defines what “core” means in vocabulary and how it can be tested with a series of tools. More importantly, it shows how core vocabulary is in fact more integrated into basic sentence structures, and how dominantly such core vocabulary figures in realizing the expressive-emotive potential of language. Chapter 3, “Words and patterns”, is centred on one key concept of lexical study, collocation (i.e. the company that words keep with each other). The emphasis of the chapter is placed on explaining how collocation can be understood in terms of a continuum of fixedness, and how somewhere along the continuum, a wealth of lexical patterns emerges that not only shapes or conditions the structure of sentences, but also prescribes specific connotative meaning -- a concept now commonly known as ‘semantic prosody’. Chapter 4, “Lexis and discourse”, addresses several slightly advanced topics in vocabulary studies, including: cohesion (i.e. “the means by which texts are linguistically connected” (87)); lexical signaling (i.e. “lexical items which make explicit the clause relation between the matrix clause and the preceding clause or sentence” (89)); “discourse markers” (i.e. items which often “indicate a boundary between what has gone before and a new stage in the discourse” (98)); and coherence (i.e. “not merely a feature of text … but a conceptual network which has to be recognized and interpreted by the sender and the reader of a text” (108)). While the meaning of these quoted definitions may not seem immediately clear, the chapter provides numerous corpus-based examples that help readers grasp these concepts and see their distinctions and inter-connections.

Part II covers three chapters that exemplify the applied linguistic perspective of vocabulary study. Chapter 5, “Lexis and literary stylistics”, explores how our multi-faceted and multi-layered understanding of words enhances the way we interpret literature. For example, new discoveries have been made in lexical associations, and new insights have been obtained as to how figurative language works in our mind. Chapter 6, “Lexis and lexicography”, is a reader-friendly introduction to how vocabulary study has profitably informed the enterprise of dictionary-making. Grammar turns out to be more lexically-based than conventionally imagined, and Carter makes that clear by expounding on the monumental Cobuild Project, which literally revolutionized the way dictionaries are conceived and made with the use of corpora, and inspired similar projects that have all deepened and expanded our understanding of the patterns and behaviors of language. Chapter 7, “Learning and teaching vocabulary”, is the longest chapter in the book. It discusses how vocabulary is acquired in both L1 and L2 contexts. Key concepts and paradigms are covered, though a heavier emphasis is given to L2 vocabulary learning. In line with that is an elaborate section on L2 vocabulary teaching, with a range of practical approaches and methods that are readily utilizable in the classroom.

Part III is composed of two short chapters, both of which are reports on studies conducted about informants. Chapter 8, “Case study: lexis, tones and ironies”, is a piece of research that examines how irony works in literary texts. It argues that irony achieves its effect, at least in part, by lexical patterns as well as readers’ extra-textual knowledge of different genres, and as such, the research represents an essentially pragmatic approach to analysis. Chapter 9, “Case study: style, lexis and the dictionary”, is an example of a more in-depth study of the different nuances of word meaning. By employing 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 bear on the notion of core vocabulary. The study also reveals more clearly how cultural meanings may be embedded in closely associated words, and that dictionary entries should find ways to present or explain such information to language learners.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415699341
Pages: 320
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