Guide to the Concordancer How to use it

The following is a guide to the concordancer for academic English, beginning with a short explanation of what a concordancer is, then looking at how to use the concordancer on the site, by first selecting options, then understanding standard search results, how to conduct an associated word search, and finally understanding the frequency data.

What is a concordancer?

A concordancer is essentially a search engine tool which is used to examine a corpus (a collection of authentic texts) in order to view words in context and extract information about frequency, range (how many different texts a word/phrase is used in), collocation and grammar. This allows students, teachers and researchers to make decisions based on actual usage, rather than relying on intuition. Because a corpus may contain millions of words, it is usually not possible to examine it without a powerful computing tool, i.e. a concordancer. Some concordancers can be installed on a computer, while others - including the one described below - are online and can be easily accessed by anyone.

The remainder of this page describes the concordancer on For information on other concordancers, check out the concordancers (online) review section.

Selecting options

Before searching you will need to decide which corpus to search in. You can choose from BNC Baby (default, a 1 million word sub-corpus of the British National Corpus), BAWE (British Academic Written English corpus, containing 6.5 million words) or BASE (British Academic Spoken English corpus).

NOTE: For the BAWE, front matter (cover page), end matter (references) and foot notes (mostly bibliographic references) are excluded from the search, since they are not representative of student writing. options1

Additionally, you will need to select how to sort results. Options are by text number (default), by word to the left of (i.e. before) the search term, by words to the right (i.e. after) the search term, or by discipline (BAWE only).

The above will produce a standard search for a word or phrase. To refine the search you can also choose to search for an associated word or phrase, which must occur five places or fewer to the left or right, depending on which you search for. See below for more details.


Standard search results

The results (technically known as concordance lines) of a standard search show all occurrences of the search word/phrase in the chosen corpus. The search word appears in the middle, with adjacent words highlighted according to whether they are to the left/right and according to whether there is punctuation between them, as follows.

  • blue = word to the left
  • purple = word to the left + punctuation before search word/phrase
  • yellow = word to the right
  • orange = word to the right + punctuation after search word/phrase

The following is an example for the word work.


In this case, the date 1983 (line 6, left) is separated by closing brackets (parentheses), while and (line 3, right) is separated by a comma. This is important since although these words occur next to the search word, the punctuation means it is unlikely the words are linked. This is in contrast to the other examples: the work, cannot work, to work, (quality) of work and early work (words to the left), and work-load, work back (to), work done, work on and work by (words to the right), which all give clues to how the word work is used.

Sorting the concordance lines (to left or right) may provide further information about usage. Below are some lines, again for the word work, sorted to the right. These show how the word combines with on: in five cases as noun + preposition, in one case as verb + preposition. In all instances it is followed by a noun: work on sth.


Associated word search results

Although the standard search can sort results by the word to the left/right and therefore help you to identify possible words associated with the search term, it is sometimes helpful to directly refine the initial search by choosing an associated word.

Below is an example for the word work plus associated word out to the right. The associated word is always highlighted in dark green, and can occur a maximum of five places away from the search word. Results are sorted according to how far away the associated word is. In the example below, in the first five concordance lines the words work and out are next to each other, while in the other four examples there is one word in between.


The second example (below) shows another search for work and out, this time with the associated word to the left. For a left search, the associated word is a lighter green.


Although the above two examples represent only a few lines (from the BAWE corpus), they still show some interesting results. The phrase work out is a phrasal verb. However, in most of the examples above, work is a noun, and it can be seen that it is often associated with the word out via the phrasal verb carry out, both in passive (work carried out) and active form (carry out work). Additionally, if used in the active, there is often another word between out and work, usually the (carry out the work), but also another noun (carry out office work) or adjective (carry out environmental work).

Frequency information

Finally, there is frequency information to help show possible grammatical and lexical collocations. The first part of this is a bar chart, showing the most common 10 words to the right and the most common 10 words to the left. Frequency is shown at the bottom (negative numbers are for words to the left). Below is an example for the word academic.


In this case, it can be seen that the academic is much more common than other two word combinations. The most common word to the right is and, which does not provide much information, and nor do most words to the left. However, other words to the right show some useful adj + noun collocations with this word, i.e. academic debate, academic year, academic community, academic achievement, academic research, academic workload, academic writing, academic literature, and academic world. All of these are actually in the Academic Collocation List (ACL) except academic workload and academic literature.

Below the chart are three tables, showing the most common words to the left, right, and also three word combinations with the search term in the middle. Tables only show combinations which occur at least five times in the corpus.

Below is an example, again for academic.


In this case, the results are particularly interesting for the three word combinations: the academic world, high academic workload, the academic community and wider academic community.

Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 17 October 2022.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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