Ask 100 Million Brits, With One Click

I’m currently working on a British English editing job for a Frankfurt design company. They’ve got a 75-page “Brosch├╝re” (read: glossy booklet), poorly translated from the German, that I am to clean up and prettify (I once described my services as “cosmetic surgery” for saggy, baggy texts).

The trouble is that after 30 pages of dubious English, you begin to doubt your own instincts. For example:

  • Is it okay to use “orchestration” when you’re not talking about music or some massive multi-person heist?
  • Once and for all, is it Majorca or Mallorca?
  • I already know that UK English speakers use “orientated” much more frequently than North Americans, but is it preferred to the extent that I should replace “oriented” with its regularized British counterpart?

That’s where the British National Corpus comes in.

The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.

In other words, instead of driving your English boyfriend crazy with questions on normativity, you can query the hive mind:

  • The proposed meaning of “orchestration”, as used in the glossy I was editing, showed up exactly NOWHERE in the Corpus. I composed a list of alternatives and left it to the client to decide.
  • The proper English term for that big island off the coast of Spain is Majorca. But I’ve heard the double-ll Catalan/Spanish designation of Mallorca used by British friends so frequently that I had to check which was the most current. The BNC cleared up the confusion: 28 instances of Mallorca, out of 100 million words; 139 uses of Majorca.
  • All those times I’ve seen “orientated” used in the English press, and been supremely freaked out by it, were ameliorated by the results I got when I compared it to “oriented” on the Corpus: “orientated” showed up half as much.

So here it is, y’alls: the big, bad BNC. You can use the new link on the list of References to the right from now on.

I won’t tell you exactly how few uses I found of obligated, so you can enjoy the moment for yourself.


  • Annie Glimmerglass said:  
    (On 26 March 2008 at 1:05 PM)

    I am obliged, and feel obligated to weigh in with one more thought about the afore-mentioned words (just afore, by a few words)…
    I am obliged to say that saying “I am “obliged” sounds (feels, actually) prettier and more ….what? courteous? than “I am obligated”. (and does the period go after the quotes or before?)

  • Casey said:  
    (On 26 March 2008 at 1:56 PM)

    It is true that I would choose obliged over obligated in that context. It’s the whole fewer-syllables thing, I guess.

    And the period goes before the quotes in U.S. style, after the quotes in U.K.–but then, perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

  • Belletra » Unbeknown or Unbeknownst? said:  
    (On 7 October 2008 at 6:21 AM)

    […] is probably a red flag in British English! I checked the British National Corpus (remember them?) just to be sure, and out of 100 million words, there are 44 instances of “unbeknown” […]

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