The Language Iceberg

Dictionaries and the Frequency of Inflectional Forms




learners’ dictionaries, lexicography, headwords, lemmas, frequency of use, inflectional verb forms


One of the many important lessons imparted by corpus linguistics is that the information supplied in dictionaries and grammars represents no more than the tip of an iceberg. In lexicography, the object of description is fundamentally the lemma. When more specific details are not supplied, the assumption on the part of the average dictionary user is in all probability that the various forms of any given lemma show not only similar frequency and lexical environment but also similar meaning. It would appear that inflectional forms are under-represented in dictionaries.
In the literature, very little attention has been devoted to inflectional forms, and in particular to their raw frequency. The frequency rates of the forms of a single lemma can not only differ markedly from each other but can also prove to be far higher or lower than the average for single inflectional forms, something which has important implications for language learners and which could therefore claim more emphasis in language-learning materials.
The main focus of this paper will be on the frequency of inflectional verb forms as represented in dictionaries, including a final case study of the frequency of such forms within some idiomatic expressions. The question lying at the heart of this work is whether the raw frequency of inflectional forms should occupy a more important position in language-learning materials. However this may be, the counting of inflectional forms can reveal new and surprising insights into the vast and mostly untamed wilderness of language.

Author Biography

Dominic Stewart, Trento University

Dominic Stewart is full professor of English Language and Linguistics and Italian-English Translation at the University of Trento, Dipartimento di Lettere e Filosofia. He has published primarily in the field of corpus linguistics and translation. His publications include Semantic Prosody: A Critical Analysis (2010), Italian to English Translation with Sketch Engine: A Guide to the Translation of Tourist Texts (2018) and Frequency in the Dictionary: A Corpus-Assisted Contrastive Analysis of English and Italian (2021).


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Articles (general section) - English language and linguistics