Coding Systems in Monolingual English Learners' Dictionaries: Form and Utility. (Linguistics)

Article excerpt

The present paper attempts to investigate and evaluate the structure of verb codes in selected pedagogical dictionaries as well as assess the usefulness of encoded syntactic information to the learner. The collection of primary sources chosen for the analysis comprises the editions of the Oxford advanced learner's dictionary published since 1974, i.e. OALDCE3 (1974), OALDCE4 (1989), OALDCE5 (1995) and OALDCE6 (2000), all the editions of the Longman dictionary of contemporary English, i.e. LDOCE1 (1978), LDOCE2 (1987) and LDOCE3 (1995), the Collins COBUILD English language dictionary (1987, henceforward COBUILD 1), the Collins COBUILD English dictionary (1995, henceforth COBUILD2) and the Cambridge international dictionary of English (1995, hereafter CIDE). The first two editions of the Oxford advanced learner's dictionary, i.e. OALDCE1 (1942) and OALDCE2 (1963), have not been taken into consideration since the coding systems employed there hardly differ from that in the 1974 edition.

The paper consists of nine parts. The rationale for encoding syntactic information on verbs in the pedagogical dictionary is discussed in the first one. Proposals for a user-friendly form of verb codes are dealt with in part two. The third section presents a brief diachronic account of the introduction of verb codes into pedagogical lexicography. Section four is concerned with the coding system employed in OALDCE3. Then, constituent parts of verb codes in the remaining dictionaries are subjected to scrutiny. Specifically, section five is concerned with symbols for the verb, and section six -- with symbols for the components of the complementation structure. The main types of coding system are identified and assessed from the vantage point of the learner in the seventh part of the paper. Results of selected pieces of research on dictionary use and the tenets of relevant theories of language teaching are subsequently referred to with a view to throwing light on students' attitudes to verb codes. Concluding rema rks, offered in the final part of the article, complete the study.

1. Introduction

Coding systems in pedagogical dictionaries have been invented in response to the need to provide the learner with adequate syntactic information on verbs in an appropriate form. As Cowie (1983a: 100) points out, devising a system of grammatical labeling which properly reflects syntactic complexities, and is thus reliable, but remains lucid and usable calls for great ingenuity. Elsewhere he emphasizes that the considerable weight of syntactic information on verbs needs to be presented in a form which is both economical and maximally explicit (Cowie 1978: 260-261).

Accuracy of description and ease of accessibility are the two main aims any dictionary is likely to pursue (Herbst 1999: 229). Unfortunately, it is difficult to satisfy both criteria concurrently. On the one hand, as Jackson (1985: 58) observes, the more detailed the syntactic information, the more elaborate and often impenetrable the system of presentation becomes. Conversely, information about how to incorporate a newly learnt word into phrases and sentences is essential to the learner, hence the need for easily understood mechanisms for providing such information. Accuracy and user-friendliness should thus, in Herbst's (1999: 229) view, be seen as the poles between which the design of a dictionary has to find its place.

Striking a balance between accuracy on the one hand and intelligibility and accessibility of syntactic information on the other is of paramount importance especially in dictionaries designed for foreign learners, whose reference skills are necessarily limited (Bejoint 1981: 211). Cowie (1983b: 136) defines reference skills as "the skills which the user is assumed to possess, or can be expected to acquire, in handling a dictionary and making effective use of the information it contains". He also remarks that not only reference skills but also the reference habits associated with the content of the dictionary and its organization are slow to change. …


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