Playing by ear and verbing by body parts: Using COCA to discover usage

Last week, a passage in the textbook for one of my classes had the expressions ‘he tunes it by ear’ and ‘they learn to play by ear’. For many of the students (not all, tho) this was a new expression, ‘[verb] by ear’, but in the context of the passage most of them figured out, on their own, that it meant the people tuning or playing instruments were able to do so without any sheet music or other aids. The textbook had a question using the expression ‘play by ear’ in the chapter review, so I felt it would to pay to explore the pattern a little.

So we had this pattern, ‘[verb] by ear’. What does ‘by ear’ really mean? And what verbs could fit into that slot? Several students agreed that it meant using one’s ears to do something. That was a fine start. But would it make any sense to say ‘sleep by ear’ or ‘imagine by ear’ with senses of using one’s ears to sleep or using one’s ears to imagine? No, not really. I asked my students if they could replace ‘by ear’ with a different expression in the phrase ‘they learn to play by ear’. Pretty quickly, they came up with ‘they learn to play by listening’. That’s more like it. So ‘[verb] by ear’ means that someone is using listening skills to [verb].

At this point, I directed the students to open up the newly-mobile-friendly COCA (every one of my students has an iPad) and enter the following query under the List function: VERB by ear.

play by ear 1
Search area highlighted in red


play by ear
VERB by ear: top 20 frequency list

Looking at the frequency data, it was immediately clear to them that ‘play(s)/playing/played by ear’ is, by far, the most frequent formulation of this pattern. ‘Learn(s)/learning/learned by ear’ is also quite a bit higher in frequency than other formulations of the pattern, most of which have only 1 or 2 occurrences in the corpus (note: ‘birding by ear’ is the title of a book for birdwatchers about learning to recognize birdsongs, and references to this book in the corpus make this formulation appear higher in the frequency list than one might otherwise expect).

Using this data my students and I discussed how the pattern ‘[verb] by ear’ can be used with a lot of different verbs, but in general they are safe knowing that it’s most often used with forms of play and learn.

For homework, students were assigned one phrase from a set of phrases: ‘[verb] by mouth’ or ‘[verb] by hand’ or ‘[verb] by foot’ or ‘[verb] by eye’; and they were told to do a similar analysis to what we did in class. That is, explain how the expression is used and find out what verbs commonly fit into the empty slot. Also, they were to find 3 example sentences (using concordance lines from COCA, an online learner’s dictionary, SkELL, etc.).

In our next class students who were assigned the same phrase sat together and checked/discussed their results, and then they taught members of other groups about their assigned phrase.

Overall, this activity went over very well. A big part of that is due to the BYU Corpora interface redesign. It’s so much cleaner visually, easier to navigate, much easier to search, less intimidating, and so much more mobile-friendly.

Importantly, considering other class and content needs, this did not take up a lot of (in-class) time. The activity on the first day took around 15 mins (in a 90 min class), and the activity on the second day took around 25 mins. Within the activity there were elements of individual, group, and whole class work, which helped keep it from seeming tedious.

Of course, there were other options for how to exploit the corpus, too. For example, instead of assigning expressions for the students to research, we could have had some fun by having them find expressions of the ‘[verb] by [body part]’ variety themselves, maybe discovering some surprising combinations. I suspect you can think of a few ways to positively tweak this kind of activity, too.



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