Stylistic analyses with WebCorp

WebCorp is a set of tools that allows the study of the world wide web as a corpus and while it was initially developed to fulfill exactly this function, it can do much more. In fact, it is an ideal means when it comes to carrying out stylistic studies. All that is needed is a text in electronic form.

I have been using WebCorp for this purpose for three years now in my module Literary Linguistics at BCU. It is a convenient tool to be used in teaching, obviously, as it is available for free online and as more and more literary texts can be accessed in electronic form, it lends itself for the analysis of their features from a linguistic perspective.

How so? Well, WebCorp includes, for example, the wordlist tool function which allows a list of all words included in a text to be created and ranked according to their frequency. This, of course, can give readers but also analysts a first indication of who the main characters in a text are, what activities they engage in and what the general topic of a text is. Subsequently, this may lead into more detailed studies of semantic fields or transitivity processes. The wordlist tool, furthermore, offers the option of studying Ngrams, that is the sequence in which words (between 2 and 5) occur in a text and the frequency with which they are attested. Thus, in addition to individual tokens, also the study of word clusters is enabled and can lead to insightful results, for example, in the field of characterisation.

Additionally, through the advanced options in the search function, WebCorp equally allows the search for collocations to be restricted to a specific site, which in the case of a stylistic study can be a chosen literary text. Through this tool, specific words can be search for in a text and the output will show them attested in context, which by default is fifty characters to the left and right of the chosen word. Now, while one may already know which word’s collocations might be interesting to study, it is equally possible that one approaches an unknown text and hence does not have a clue as to which words to search for. In the latter case, doing a wordlist of the text first can be advantageous, as it provides a list of examples ranked by frequency.

I like using the collocation search function to find out more about characterisation. I do so by choosing the name of a character as my search term and then sort the concordance list, that is my output, according to the words in first position to the right or left of a character’s name. This can indicate, for example, which adjectives are used to describe a character or which verbs are used to account for their actions.

Some of the main advantages of using WebCorp are that it is available everywhere, anytime, online, and for free. This of course speaks in favour of WebCorp compared to other software packages which need to be purchased and might not be a priority when it comes to a department’s budget. Furthermore, WebCorp does not have to be downloaded and stored on a device but can be simply used in a browser – an advantage if download rights are restricted to certain members of staff, who may not always be available to meet your spontaneous course planning needs. Specifically in the field of stylistics, WebCorp can facilitate the study of several different aspects of a text, including but not being limited to, characterisation, transitivity theory, lexical choice, collocation, or grammar and style. What I consider particularly fascinating is that it can be used for any type of text, may it be novels, chapters of novels, short stories, plays or even poems. The possibilities are endless… So, what are you waiting for?