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.



  1. Hi Keith

    I've been really interested in using sentences for my learning, and have written a few posts about the topic, which you'll find here. But my take is much more optimistic than yours!

    You came up with one poor sentence, and have concluded that sentences are not worth it ("don't even bother"). Hmmm it's actually much easier and more effective than that.

    So, hamburger - I look it up on my favourite dictionary MDBG. Then I press the Jukuu button next to the definition, and I see these sentences ...

    Fast food, such as sandwiches or hamburgers, is customary.
    I'd like to order a hamburger and fries.
    I had a hamburger and a fried chicken leg?
    John would ask, biting into a juicy hamburger.
    The seller realized this person's craving for a hamburger.
    Robert dug in right away when the hamburger was served since he felt hungry.
    The children consumed all the hamburgers.
    Hamburgers are ordered through a window in the restaurant and then are handed out through the window to the waiting customer.
    My mind was drifting toward my daily lunch of a hamburger and a bag of peanuts.
    A take-away hamburger, pizza, curry.

    I choose one that I like. For example, I might choose the second one if I don't know the Chinese word for 'fries', or I might choose the second-last one if I would like to co-learn the phrase about "my mind was drifting".

    So the next time you think, "I need to see an example sentence," do it, and do it properly :-)

  2. (n) door
    a movable panel (flat piece of wood) for closing off an entrance.


  3. @Greg, Thanks for you reading my blog and commenting. You say I came up with one poor sentence, however I stated in my blog that all of the example sentences for hamburger were useless. In ALL of the example sentences that you have provided, the word "hamburger" could easily be replaced with "hotdog." The point is, as has been already stated in the post, that none of the example sentences are specific to "hamburger." Now if someone were to sit down and actually write a sentence for the purpose of being an example sentence, then I'm sure they could come up with useful example sentences. But that's not what we're getting from the publishers. Here, if it helps you to understand, let me make up a bad and a good example sentence and I'll let you try to understand for yourself the difference between the two.

    Vocabulary word: red

    Bad example sentence:
    My favorite color is red.

    Good example sentence:
    I stopped the car because the traffic signal turned red.

  4. Hi Keith, I just saw that you had replied to me - but I never got notified by the system, so I didn't realise! Sorry for the really late reply :-)

    I think you and I want sentences for different reasons. You seem to want them to be a dictionary-type definition, but I'm happy that they teach me a word, some context, and some grammar.

    If I'm an elementary learner, I agree your 'bad' sentences doesn't *define* red, but once I know how to say 'red' then the sentence has also taught me to talk about favourites.

    And yes, my sentences could all have 'hamburger' replaced by 'hotdog', but it's only going to take me once use of the card to know that 汉堡包 is hamburger. If I had chosen "The seller realized this person's craving for a hamburger", then the following few repetitions will help me with the additional vocab (to be honest, right now I don't know the word for 'craving'), and the general structure of the sentence.

    So I don't use sentences for definitions, I have a dictionary for that. I use it for learning Chinese, with a little bit of context & grammar thrown it.

    Thanks again for always addressing challenging issues.

  5. Reminds me of a fake spelling bee contest: Could you use it is a sentence? Yes, I'm using the word "hamburger" in a sentence.


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