Google is a teacher’s BFF: Googling vocabulary


In Part 1 of this text, I went over 2 tips about using dictionaries and 1 tip about corpora and Google NGram. In fact, nowadays, there is no question that Google is a teacher’s BFF… if and only if we know how to use it. So here are more tips for looking up vocabulary using our contemporary oracle.

4. Be a good language detective: don’t stop at the first sign that you’ve found something.

Just the other day a friend of mine saw the expression “parted the cake” (instead of “cut” or “sliced the cake”) in a student’s composition. Apparently, the student was convinced that “part the cake” was a possible collocation because it could be found online.

Oh, well, if it was on the internet, then it must be true!

Time to teach the student some healthy cynicism. Yes, “part the cake” yields a few hits, but don’t stop there. Investigate further. First question: what are the sentences like? Do they mean what we want them to mean?

In that case, the sentences found are pretty much in the lines of “Best part: the cake.” A notably different case… (And I beg to differ! The best part is the “beijinhos” and “brigadeiros”!)

In all honesty, though, if you search for “parted the cake” in Google Books (which usually has edited work, as seen in Part 1 of this text), you will still find 2 hits with the exact same meaning of cutting. Well, 2 hits vs. 7,060 for “slice the cake” and 58,000 for “cut the cake” should be enough to convince that student that he or she found outliers that are best avoided. However, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the student believes a single occurrence justifies using it. Let’s study the cases further.

One of them reads, “Dear Editors: Something’s up with my baby boy. On his first birthday he parted the cake like it was the Red Sea!” This is clearly an anecdote, and the person is making creative use of the language, comparing what the baby did to the “parting of the Red Sea.” Therefore, unless the student’s goal is to liken a birthday to that Biblical scene, this example simply isn’t relevant.

The other instance is “After that he parted the cake and shared it with everyone in the party.” Oh-oh, so is “part the cake” possible? Well, it’s not impossible as all the words are part of the language and are in the right order, but I say, “Stop, look, listen to your heart.” That single case is from a self-edited book. Who says this Ms.  Monique Roque is a competent speaker of English, a model to be followed?

You might be thinking, “Elementary, my dear Natália. I would never consider ‘parting’ a cake.” On the other hand (and as Higor Cavalcante says, “here’s where you’re going to hate me”), in texts written by teachers (myself included), I often find phrasal verbs, idioms or rare words that just don’t fit in. “Could it possibly be that the author wanted to sophisticate the language but didn’t investigate the word further?”, I often wonder.


5.       Use search operators.

If all you do when you Google something is type it in the box, the existence of search operators might surprise you. They are little commands that make your search more precise.

The most obvious one for language teachers is define: That will give you quick access to definitions.

Here are some other useful operators:

When you use a dash before a word or site, it excludes sites with that info from your results. This is useful for words with multiple meanings, like Jaguar the car brand and jaguar the animal.
Examples: jaguar speed -car or pandas
When you put a word or phrase in quotes, the results will only include pages with the same words in the same order as the ones inside the quotes. Only use this if you’re looking for an exact word or phrase, otherwise you’ll exclude many helpful results by mistake.
Example: “imagine all the people”
* Add an asterisk as a placeholder for any unknown or wildcard terms. .
Example: “a * saved is a * earned”
site: Get results from certain sites or domains.
Examples: olympics and olympics



They might seem like just another thing to memorize, but honestly they have helped me a lot throughout the years. For instance, when you want to use an idiom but only remember part of it or when you’re not so sure about the preposition in a sentence, just google it in quotes with an asterisk for the word you don’t remember. For “make * while the sun shines”, Google comes up with “make hay while the sun shines”. Brilliant, huh?

Also, the other day a friend asked in a group for the translation of “iniciação científica”. Eduardo Zito, the vocabulary guru, suggested “undergraduate research program(me)”, which he found at Purdue. However, is it used in other universities? Well, simply do a search for the term (in quotes!) followed by and you’ll get results for (mostly) American universities, as that’s the domain name they use. Want to know if that’s the term in the UK? Google it with Australian unis?

Ah, but maybe “scientific initiation” works, too! Ok, if you think so, google it. Then ask Google to remove Brazilian and Portuguese websites from the search results ( –, and watch the number go down. (And what is left seems to be Brazilian articles in other domains…)

Honestly, I don’t know what teachers did before Google, but, as much as I love Google, I do believe dictionaries remain relevant. In Part 3, I’ll explain why, showing things Google won’t tell you.

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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