Wednesday, April 25, 2012

example sentences

One feature of modern dictionaries is the "example sentence." If you go to, you can find example sentences with the definition of a word. For example, here's an example sentence from the entry for "hamburger."

  • That's a sad fact for hamburger lovers, but it's true.
Unfortunately, all of the example sentences for hamburger, and most other entries, are useless. My guess is, though, they didn't waste any time writing these sentences. They most likely use some code to pull them from a large corpus.

What's the problem with this and most other example sentences you get from dictionaries? These sentences are not really good examples of how to use the word. The sentences also don't give you any hint or idea as to what the word means. That means you can take the word in the sentence that's supposed to be the most important word and replace it with about a hundred other words.  For instance, "hamburger" in the above sentence could be replaced with any of the following: pizza, language, ocean, animal, young, paid, forgotten, new, old, lost.  The list goes on and on.

There's nothing about that sentence that tells you this must be talking about a hamburger. Basically, if hamburger were an unknown word to you in English, but you knew what a hamburger is, you would not be able to make any connections from what you know about hamburgers to the word in this sentence.

The best example sentences would be ones where you could fill in the blank.  In the example sentence above, if I left it blank, nobody, not even a native speaker would know what the original word was. But with an ideal example sentence, the blank could only be filled in by one word. And that word would be obvious to any native speaker from looking at the rest of the sentence.

 So the next time you think, "I need to see an example sentence," don't even bother.