Last year around this time, I told you about a new word tool called Google Books Ngram Viewer that lets you see and compare how words and phrases have been used over time. Check out How to Search a Corpus for more. Now, I’m happy to tell you the details of an update Google released that makes the Ngram Viewer even better!
Pick a Part of Speech
The most exciting improvement in Ngram Viewer 2.0 is the ability to designate parts of speech.
For example, people often complain about the use of the word “impact” as a verb in business. Everyone agrees that “impact” can be a noun, as in, “Hurricane Sandy had a huge impact on the New York City subway system”; but when it’s a verb, some people hold to the rule that “impact” should only describe a collision or packing, as in, “Scientists expect an asteroid to impact Earth.” Some people don’t like sentences such as, “The weather will impact fourth quarter revenue.” They say “impact” shouldn’t be used that way and they complain that such uses of “impact” are new.
With Google Ngram Viewer 2.0, we can get a hint of whether those people are right because now you can search the database and see how often “impact” appears in Google Books as a verb and how often it appears as a noun. When I do the search, it does indeed appear that people started using “impact” as a verb more frequently starting around 1970. That doesn’t tell us they’re using it as a verb the way people don’t like, but it does show that it’s popping up in books more often as a verb in general.
Search by Position in a Sentence
Besides limiting your searches to words when they are one part of speech or flanked by a certain part of speech, you can also search to see if your words appear at the beginning or end of a sentence. For example, my step-sister recently asked me a question that is perfect for this kind of search. She wanted to know whether she should say something displayed an array of red or an array of reds.
I wasn’t sure and I couldn’t find anything in my usual usage guides, and when that happens, I often turn to a Google Ngram search to see how the word or phrase appears in books. Before we had these new search abilities, I could only see that “array of red” was more common than “array of reds.”
I felt like simple frequency wasn’t the complete answer though because “array of red” could modify a noun and “array of reds” shouldn’t. I might be getting a lot of hits for phrases like “an array of red roses,” and that wasn’t the type of sentence that was confounding my sister.
Now, I can use a new search tag to compare “of red” and “of reds” only when they appear at the end of a sentence. That eliminates the problem of phrases like “of red roses” muddying up my search. When I do the search with the new limiter, it becomes even more apparent that “array of red” is the more common way of writing it, and I can feel more confident of my answer.
Use Words in Simple Equations
Another new feature is that you can treat words (or, really, their frequencies) as numbers in simple equations. Going back to my “impact” example, it was kind of hard to see how much the use of “impact” as a verb had grown because it’s used as a noun so much more often. Google puts the lines of the things you want to compare on the same graph, and a very frequent word or phrase can make the scale on the graph so big that it swamps out less frequent results—but now you can fix that too. Stan Carey wrote about this trick on the Macmillan Dictionary blog recently: Since you can now add, subtract, divide, and multiply results, you can multiply the “impact”-as-a-verb results by 10 so you can see them better on the scale.
The math also comes in handy when one word or phrase doesn’t quite cover your search. For example, let’s say I want to look at the sounds animals make and see which is more popular in books. I could do “woof” versus “meow,” but other words cover those sounds: “bark” and “purr” come to mind.
Now, I can add them together and compare “woof” plus “bark” to “meow” plus “purr.” Sorry cat lovers—it turns out dog sounds are much more popular in books.
Search by Country
The final new toy I’m going to tell you about is the ability to limit your search by country. Going back to my “impact” example again, some people complain that the verb problem is an American problem. You could search separately by country before, but now you can put your results on the same graph and see them side by side on the same scale; and what you find is that the dramatic increase in the use of “impact” as a verb is happening in both British English and American English, although it did start a few years earlier in America.
There are a lot of other new things you can do in the new Google Ngram Viewer, and if you’re interested, you should definitely go to the Google Books blog and read the whole post about the update. It has all the tags you can use in searches. I’ll put a link on my website, but the landing page address for that blog is googleresearch.blogspot.ie.
I find Google Ngram searching fascinating, and you can also use it to answer a lot of your own questions. I find it particularly useful for questions from people who are learning English and want to know which preposition to use. For example, a while ago someone asked me whether it is correct to say “in production” or “on production.” As a native English speaker, I just know that “in production” is the right choice, but that reader could have used the Google Ngram Viewer to find the answer himself instead of waiting for me to write back. So check it out—both to do fun head-to-head matches such as “pirates” versus “ninjas” and to answer serious language questions.
Orwant, J. “Ngram Viewer 2.0.” Google Research blog. October 18, 2012.
http://googleresearch.blogspot.com/2012/10/ngram-viewer-20.html (accessed October 20, 2012).
Zimmer, B. “Bigger, Better Google Ngrams: Brace Yourself for the Power of Grammar.” The Atlantic. October 18, 2012.
Carey, S. “Google’s Ngram Viewer 2.0 – a new bag of tricks.” Macmillan Dictionary blog. October 30, 2012. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/googles-ngram-viewer-2-0-a-new-bag-of-tricks (accessed October 30, 2012).