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What can language research tell us about the ‘real world’? Part 1

John Williams, our new guest blogger, worked as a lexicographer for COBUILD and later for Macmillan. He is currently a lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth and is particularly interested in lexicography and language study as cultural and social practices.


Last month I participated in a conference at the University of Portsmouth entitled “Language in the Real World”. In today’s tough economic climate good jobs can be hard to find for new graduates, and many UK universities are seeking to give themselves a competitive edge by stressing the relevance of their courses to the world of work (= the real world, but see below). This was very much the context for this conference, bringing together academic linguists with practitioners who use their linguistic knowledge in other professional domains, eg. in forensic work or commercial lexicography.

As a corpus linguist and lexicographer myself, I was particularly interested in the pragmatic meanings of the expression “real world”, remembering a political dicussion on TV some years ago when one participant accused another of “not living in the real world”. Surely, in the literal sense, we are all living in the real world? Moreover, a French colleague told me that the French translation of “real world” (“monde réel”) occurs much less frequently in everyday discourse. (This is borne out by corpus evidence.) Surely French speakers are as much preoccupied with the real world as English speakers? There must be something rhetorical going on here, so I decided to investigate.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines “the real world” as: “ordinary life with all its practical problems, rather than theories or policies that do not seem relevant to it”. Given the space available, this definition is a reasonable account of the corpus evidence, but there is a lot more going on in the data, as we shall see.

It should be noted at this point that the rhetorical force of the expression “not living in the real world” has already been admirably covered in another forum by a leading contributor to this blog.

I carried out my analysis using the SketchEngine interface to the 1.5 billion word ukWaC corpus, compiled from websites with the .uk suffix.

The first thing that jumped out at me was that “real world” is often found between quotation marks. In fact, subsequent analysis showed that it was the fourth most frequent “double-quoted” two-word expression in the whole ukWaC corpus. (A free Macmillan Collocations Dictionary for the first reader who successfully predicts any other five out of the top twenty*.) This suggests that many writers might see something problematic about the whole notion of the “real world”. Indeed, there is a respected philosophical tradition – taking in such illustrious names as Plato, Descartes, Kant, Nietzche, and Baudrillard – that does not take for granted the existence of the real world or our knowledge of it.

The second thing that jumped out at me from the corpus data was that the University of Portsmouth was not the only educational institution to be preoccupied with the real world. Around 30% of the instances of “real world” came from domains, and sentences such as the following are typical:

We are proud of the quality of our courses which prepare students for the real world of business, equipping them with the knowledge and skills required in today’s global environment. (

An event in which students are being primed to undertake their own research into the problems and issues of using computers in the real world of work. (

In terms of work ethic, however, being an undergraduate is nothing like the real world. (

It is my hope that the strapline, the real world university, will be used by staff and students involved in marketing and promoting Aston to the outside world. (

To return to the dictionary definition above, it seems to be the words “rather than” that are crucial. The corpus data suggests that the real world is very difficult to pin down in itself, but is ‘constructed’ in opposition to various other notions that may be easier to define. One such opposition is that between academic life and the real world, as seen in the examples above. Over the coming weeks, I will be looking at some of the other oppositions that emerge from the data.

Entry is made by a Comment on the article. The prize will be awarded to the first person who correctly predicts any five of the top twenty expressions (professional corpus linguists are disqualified from entering). The judge’s decision will be based on the time stamp of the Comment and is final.

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About the author


John Williams


  • I’m going to suggest

    1. social media
    2. cloud sourcing
    3. what’s trending

    … and hello from Australia this morning!

  • Since I’m not a computational linguist, this assignment was really challenging. I played with the SketchEngine for a couple of hours, and I think it could be either “thank you” or “The Prisoner”. When you post the results, please do let us know how to write such a query.

  • By their very nature (i.e. in quotation marks) they would have to be words or expressions that seem to denote the real which is then called into question, so the commas subvert the word’s meaning. I’m not sure that I can come up with five, but ‘real life’, ‘genuine’, ‘just friends’, ‘guarantee’, ‘real gold (/ silver etc), ‘ínstant celebrity’, ‘the real thing’ would be possibilities. More to follow if I think of them!

  • Others might be ‘save’ or ‘resuce’, ‘sick’ / ‘unwell’ / ‘under the weather’, ‘common sense’, ‘famous’, ‘speak for itself’,

  • Dear John

    Your article has really motivated me towards a personal informal language research… The headline question can lead us to a diversity of fields in the real world. Let me suggest the following, and I hope they may entertain yourself and be accepted. 🙂

    * real picture
    *crystal clear
    *financial debt

    Thanks for your attention.


  • Hello from Portsmouth and thank you for all your comments. Some promising competition entries… So far no-one has got 5 of the top 20, but both Caroline and Alexander have notched up at least one point. Lisa-Gaye and Maria have got the right general idea, but no hits as yet. Jean and Caroline – remember I’m looking for *two*-word expressions!

    Alexander: I wasn’t able to generate the list entirely from within SketchEngine. I’m not a computer specialist, but I did use some additional computational tools that are in the public domain. It took me a while to think it through. I’ll release the algorithm once the competition is over.

    Keep ’em coming!


  • Curiouser and curiouser! (no, it’s not one of my answers). Logically thinking, this two-word expression must be very recent (to justify double quotes) and be talked about a lot, or it could be a proper noun (like “Big Brother”), or it is some phrase which is extremely common when used ironically. Not sure whether it could be some expression which is common in direct speech (like “good morning”). Anything else missing?

    New suggestions from me: “hands on”, “best practice”, “at risk”, “regime change”.

    John, I’m not a programmer, either. Just a language teacher here.

  • “family values,” “gold standard,” “intelligent design,” “clean coal”, “hot spots” are up there with “real world” and “regime change” in COCA.

  • Hmmm you have me intrigued now!
    How about
    “google it”
    “reality TV”
    “crowd sourcing”

  • Hello John

    Thanks for your feedback so far! This is really challenging. Well, I’m suggesting these today:

    * cutting-edge
    * state-of- art
    * debt crisis
    *stock market
    * tech savvy

    Please let us know of any points… 🙂

    Enjoy the competition everyone!


  • My guess will be that these words might be fairly recent, but not necessarily so. And mostly used ironically, and in a variety of contexts, not only business and politics. Your article has prompted me to do some search in COCA, I admit, but some of the suggesions have already been made, so let me make some different ones:
    1.common sense
    2.good job
    3.big picture
    4.high risk
    5.real life
    By the way, I’m only a humble English teacher, not a liguists either, let alone a corpus linguist.

  • Hello John

    Upon further reflection I’ve thought of submitting these two word expressions so trendy in the real (contemporary) world:

    * bail out
    *cash withdrawal
    *peak stuff
    *mobile apps

    Bye for now


  • Excellent entries from everyone. In addition to the people I mentioned last week, Jean and Monika have also now scored points. And I think you all have pretty much the right idea – the expressions concerned tend to be recent entrants into the language and/or have contested meanings. At some level, the speaker/writer is not accepting the expression, or its face value.

    As for the prize, in principle we have a winner, but I am awaiting a ruling from the “bearded sage”. (Remember I said *predicts* not *counts*.) As soon as all this is settled, I will publish the list and the search algorithm.

    I’ll be back very soon with some more contested meanings from the ‘real world’.


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