“Alter” versus “Modify” from a corpus-based perspective

Abstract. Teaching and learning how to utilize academic lexical items have always been a challenge in EFL setting. With the desire of making some contribution to the understanding of academic synonyms, this piece of research aims to investigate the meanings of the two verbs “alter” and “modify” through their collocations with nouns and the similarities and differences in their collocation patterns. The issue is approached from a corpus-based perspective and the method of lexical collocation. The findings of the study include: (1) the two verbs embrace the same denotation of “to change proportionally” in certain contexts; (2) “alter” possesses a broader sense when referring to an action of profound and fundamental change.

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65 HNUE JOURNAL OF SCIENCE DOI: 10.18173/2354-1067.2018-0051 Social Sciences, 2018, Volume 63, Issue 7, pp. 65-72 This paper is available online at “ALTER” VERSUS “MODIFY” FROM A CORPUS-BASED PERSPECTIVE Nguyen Hong Lien and Le Thi Thu Hong Faculty of English, Hanoi National University of Education Abstract. Teaching and learning how to utilize academic lexical items have always been a challenge in EFL setting. With the desire of making some contribution to the understanding of academic synonyms, this piece of research aims to investigate the meanings of the two verbs “alter” and “modify” through their collocations with nouns and the similarities and differences in their collocation patterns. The issue is approached from a corpus-based perspective and the method of lexical collocation. The findings of the study include: (1) the two verbs embrace the same denotation of “to change proportionally” in certain contexts; (2) “alter” possesses a broader sense when referring to an action of profound and fundamental change. Key words: Alter, modify, corpus, synonym, collocation. 1. Introduction Rationale More than being a linguistic instrument, English, the world language, leads its learners to broadened horizons and brings them to various perspectives. Hence the teaching of English as a second or foreign language has never ceased to be vital. It is hardly of any surprises that English as a school subject accounts for the most teaching hours in classrooms all over the world compared to any other subject. Vietnam, in the process of renovating its education and particularly its English language teaching, has placed emphasis on the development of teachers’ and learners’ proficiency of the language. High school teachers of English, university lecturers of English and graduates of English education are all requested to achieve C1 in the national proficiency framework. This benchmark, which corresponds with band 7.0 in the IELTS test, requires a usage of less common words “with awareness of style and collocation,” according to the public version of the IELTS speaking and writing band descriptors. As Vietnamese learners and teachers of English, the authors of this research have recognized difficulties met by non-native speakers in terms of understanding and using correct vocabulary in different contexts. This challenge becomes even more significant when it comes to word choice among confusing synonyms in academic settings. Motivated by the desire to better understand this issue, we have chosen to investigate the usages of a pair of synonyms , “alter” and “modify”, both of which are often misused and both of which appear in the same sub-list in the Academic Word List, which was developed by Averil Coxhead at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Received December 11, 2018. Accepted May 9, 2018. Contact Nguyen Hong Lien, e-mail address: nguyenhonglien.media@gmail.com/ Nguyen Hong Lien and Le Thi Thu Hong 66 Real language to investigate by using the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) Despite the vast existing linguistic research employing the corpus linguistics approach, almost no corpus-based study related to "alter" and "modify" is carried out. Therefore, a study which both employs “real life” texts from corpora and explores this topic certainly fills the mentioned gap. The Corpus of Contemporary American English was chosen as the only corpus of the research for not only it is very user-friendly but also it is the largest free corpus of American English, making it the most accessible. Davies [2] - the creator of the COCA – states that the COCA contains more than 450 million words of text and is equally divided among spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts. It consists of 20 million words each year from 1990-2012 and the corpus is also updated regularly (the most recent texts are from summer 2012). Research purpose This piece of research aims to find out the collocating patterns of the two words “alter” and “modify”, i.e. whether they collocate differently as well as what their collocates are, in order to draw out the similarities and differences in meaning (if exist) of this pair of synonyms. Research questions a. What are the most frequent nouns that collocate with “alter” and “modify” in the COCA? b. Are the collocation patterns of “alter” and “modify” different? If yes, how? 2. Content 2.1. Research approach As the title of the study indicates, the study follows the corpus approach which utilizes authentic language from real life in order to identify words collocating with a targeted one in the highest frequency. According to Conrad [1, 385], “corpus linguistics is an approach to investigating language that is characterized by the use of large collections of texts (spoken, written, or both) and computer-assisted analysis methods.” In this study, lexical collocation is the main method that is employed. As Firth [3, 37] states: “The complete meaning of a word is always contextual, and no study of meaning apart from a complete context can be taken seriously.” This is also the technique that Tran [4, 9] utilized when comparing the evaluative adjectives "interesting" and "nice" in written and spoken English in a corpus-based study. Also, this study is a mixed model which involved the integration of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Particularly, the quantitative method is performed as a number of nouns that collocate with the word “alter” and "modify" in the highest frequency in the COCA are listed. The qualitative method is processed as discourse analysis of some of these nouns is conducted in order to compare the use of “alter” and "modify" in American English. The study is implemented on a comparative-synchronic axis (simultaneous depictions of the use of “alter” and "modify" in different contexts that are language items in the COCA) and a historical-diachronic axis (temporal sequences that range from 1990 to June 2012). 2.2. Data collection procedure So as to conduct the study, the SEARCH STRING section in the COCA is the main data collection instrument. In order to conduct the study, these stages are followed: “Alter” versus “Modify” from a corpus-based perspective 67 Stage 1: Steps to collect data from the website are processed. • In the SEARCH STRING section, the word “alter” is typed in box WORD(S). • In the COLLOCATES box, the number 0 and 4 are ticked to limit the number of words appearing after “alter”. • Then, in the POS LIST section, “noun.ALL” is chosen so that only nouns are included in the list. • Afterwards, the SEARCH button is pressed and the results are displayed on the right with the nouns that have the highest frequency of collocation. Stage 2: The same procedure is applied to "modify". Stage 3: Data are collected and analyzed. The analysis is performed based on the following framework: Collect some nouns that collocate with the word “alter” and "modify" in the highest frequency in the COCA Cross-check the meanings of the two words in 3 online dictionaries namely  Merriam – Webster Online Dictionary  Longman Online Dictionary of Contemporary English  Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary Analyze examples to reveal the use of "alter" and "modify" when collocating with nouns Compare the use of the two words Draw a conclusion on the usage of the two words in the COCA Figure 1. Framework of discourse analysis of the nouns that collocate with the word “alter” and "modify" in the highest frequency in the COCA 2.3. Discourse analysis and findings 2.3.1. Dictionaries' definition According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Longman Online Dictionary of Contemporary English, “alter” means to change or make something change, whereas “modify” denotes an action of changing a part of something in order to make it more suitable and effective. Similarly, “alter” is explained as “to become different, to make somebody/something different” by Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary; meanwhile “modify” is considered equal to “to change something slightly, in order to make it more suitable for a particular purpose.” All in all, it can be inferred from the definitions of the abovementioned dictionaries that the two investigated verbs have a similar sense, which is to change or to change something. On the other hand, the words are also different from each other for “modify” means to change on a very Nguyen Hong Lien and Le Thi Thu Hong 68 small scope out of a whole system, whereas the scale of alteration is not determined in the definitions of the other verb. 2.3.2. Discourse analysis The purpose of this paper is to differentiate the use of these 2 words; therefore, the next section will focus on the similarities and differences in their collocating patterns. A. Similarities Among the most frequent collocates, these following nouns can go with both “alter” and “modify”: "behaviour", "structure", "rules", "system", "policy", "way", "plan" and along with others. The data are examined with a random example in the COCA; however, only some of the analysis will be shown The analysis is presented in Table 1: Table 1. Discourse analysis of some nouns that collocate with “alter” and "modify" in the highest frequency in the COCA Colloca- ting nouns Examples in the COCA Discourse analysis BE H A V IO U R [2011] An initial interval observation set revealed that Roger was on task during 41% of the observation intervals and his peers were on task during 73% of the observation intervals. In consultation with parents and the teacher, the school counselor decided that environmental engineering should be attempted first to modify the problematic behavior. After modifications were made in the classroom, a second interval observation set was taken. In this situation, since Roger was not attentive during the lesson, the school counselor attributed the problem to his behaviour. They emphasized it was his problematic behaviour that needed some changes. However, the text does not mention how the changes should be made. Therefore, "modify" here is used to change something generally. [2011] Messages to the public should make clear both the degree of hazard and the appropriate actions to take in order to avoid leaving a child unattended in a car. Research on heat warnings issued by the media and agencies such as the National Weather Service indicate that they do raise awareness among the public but often do not alter behavior because people do not sense a threat to themselves. The behaviour in this example involves the action of leaving a child without surveillance in a car. According to research, people do not alter their behaviour, which is a relatively universal statement. It does not specify the manner in which the behaviour should be altered. Hence, it can be said that "alter" is used to mention an unclear change. ST R U C TU R E [2011] Industrially, the structure of chocolate is the result of a series of complex process operations, based on the trials and errors of thousands of cooks over hundreds of years. Today, we would like to be able to model how to create and modify that structure without so many trials and errors. The structure in this case probably links to a series of complex process operations in making chocolate. The context shows that the author would like to replace these steps with newer ones, not a completely different procedure. Shortly, "modify" here does not refer to a change in nature of the accompanying object. [2011] In mid-September, Sprint raised its In this instance, Sprint - a global “Alter” versus “Modify” from a corpus-based perspective 69 early-termination fee for smart devices (smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and laptops) from $200 to $350. Every major carrier prorates the fee based on how many months remain in the contract, a practice that the FCC is looking into. Higher ETFs follow a trend: Providers don't hike rates, but they alter the structure of their plans to increase costs for consumers. provider of voice, data and Internet services - hike the fee of early termination for smart devices. Besides, ETFs (an exchange-traded fund is an investment fund traded on stock exchanges) does not follow the same trend. They change the structure of the plan. However, the plan is not apparently presented, so it can be said that there are some changes to be made regardless of the degree. Therefore, "alter" here involves a proportional change. SY ST EM [2012]You can simplify die system to do just solar water heating by downsizing the collector and tank, and taking out the radiant floor heating components. In fact, this system was derived from an earlier design intended just for water heating. It would also be good to introduce some tilt into the collector to improve its year-round performance. These changes can make a simple solar water heating system that costs about $1,000 and typically pays for itself in less than three years. Similarly, you could modify the system to provide only solar heating and not domestic hot water. In the beginning of this extract, the way to simplify the system is clearly demonstrated. Other functions of this system are also introduced subsequently by partly changing some components, not the whole system Therefore, in the last sentence, the word "similarly" denotes the same change in another function. In short, "modify" here is to show a change in a part of the whole system, not making it malfunctioned by replacing the components. [2008] Beijing could further reduce the country's emissions by taking more forceful measures, such as imposing tight caps on emitters in the power and industrial sectors and permitting them to trade allowances directly with their counterparts in Europe, bypassing governments. Beijing could also alter its taxation system to include a carbon tax, which would further encourage energy efficiency and the production of clean energy The taxation system is said to include a carbon tax, which is an addition to the existing one. Therefore, it can hardly be a major change when this alternation is carried out. Accordingly, "alter" in this example is likely to embrace the meaning of "a minor change by adding another element to the existing system." Briefly, the data analysis shows that in many contexts, when collocating with the same noun, the two words carry a similar meaning which is “to change something proportionally, not causing any significant variation in the characteristics of the object.” Under those circumstances, they can be interchangeable without major meaning shift. B. Differences Among the most frequent collocates of both words, there are some words that tend to go with “alter” instead of “modify” namely “nature”, “ landscape”, “balance” and “perception”. The Nguyen Hong Lien and Le Thi Thu Hong 70 data are examined with a random example in the COCA; however, only some of the analysis will be shown. The analysis is presented in Table 2. Table 2. Discourse analysis of some nouns that only collocate with “alter” in the highest frequency in the COCA Colloca- ting nouns Examples in the COCA Discourse analysis N A TU R E [2010] The MCB seeks to create an environment in schools in which Muslim children do not make “inappropriate assumptions" that " to progress in society they will have to compromise or give up aspects of who they are, and their religious beliefs and values. " Toward this end, the MCB proposes a jaw-dropping list of changes that' would fundamentally alter the nature of British schools, transforming them, in effect, into Saudi- like institutions. The MCB wants to help Muslim children not misunderstand that they have to lose their national characters in order to be successful by a list of “jaw- dropping” changes, i.e. very fundamental ones which take place on a large scale. These changes are claimed to transform British schools into total different natured institutions. Therefore, “alter” here is likely to indicate vast changes with profound effects. L A N D SC A PE [2012] The Promise has been in place for only a few years. Such a policy has the potential to affect positive changes in students' social, academic, and career plans. Student aspirations are affected by proximal factors in the school environment as well as distal factors, such as the The potential changes brought by the Promise do not only affect a single aspect but a various ones of students’ plan. These changes are also said to be far-reaching towards the whole picture of further education for young people. Promise, which may radically alter the postsecondary landscape for youth. Accordingly, “alter” in this context involves a thorough change. B A LA N C E [2006] Although North Korea has long claimed it had the capability to produce a bomb; the test would be the first proof that it had done so. If the test is confirmed, North Korea would join the current members of the nuclear club the United States, Russia, Britain, France, India, Pakistan and China. Officials worried that a nuclear armed North would dramatically alter the strategic balance of power in the Pacific, and would undermine already fraying global anti- proliferation efforts. In this case, the confirmation of North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear bomb will put the country in the list of nuclear club members. When that happens, the old situation of power will change drastically along with the roles of concerned nations. Hence, “alter” in this example demonstrates an action of a complete change. “Alter” versus “Modify” from a corpus-based perspective 71 PE R C EP TI O N [1998] Changes in the external and internal environment may lead to improvements in an individual's ability to master developmental changes and to redirect the developmental trajectory (Cicchetti &; Tucker, 1994). Repeated opportunities for mastery in novel situations might alter the child's perception of novel experiences as threatening and bad to a perception of the experiences as safe and positive. In this extract, it is clearly seen that “alter” is used to refer to a complete 180 degree change, from one perception to another which is totally different. (“threatening and bad” novel experiences vs. “safe and positive” one). Consequently, the verb “alter” here is indicates a profound and comprehensive switch of the child’s perception. Overall, it can be observed that “alter” tends to collocate more with some nouns with which “modify” do not. In these cases, these collocates are mostly uncountable abstract nouns which demonstrate ideas and concepts. Also, the verb “alter” in these contexts means “to change something wholly and profoundly with a likeliness of substantial variation in terms of the subject’s characteristics”. 2.3.4. Findings and implications In many contexts, when collocating with the same nouns such as “behavior”, “structure”, “plan”, “system”, it can be observed that there are hardly any meaning differences between “alter” and “modify.” The two words both denote a slight change in the whole system without causing a substantial variation in the nature of the system. Hence, "alter" and "modify" can be interchangeable in a number of in
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