Netspeak – One word leads to another

Netspeak – a great internet tool to show L1 and L2 English speakers how English is really used

Nowadays, there is a growing use of new corpus linguistics apps and websites to help students and teachers access information to see how people really use the English language (McBride 2020). These data-driven learning resources are invaluable for teachers, both L1 (mother tongue English) and L2 (English as a second language) speakers (Dewaele, J. M. 2018), as they can quickly check to see if a phrase is, for example, a strong collocation, or check to see which is more common between two alternatives . Once familiar, it is a small step to showing your students a tool and training them to use it for themselves.

In today’s blog post, we’ll be looking at one of the simplest and best tools around, which uses the internet as a corpus, and searches it to see how English is used –

Here’s some tips for how to use it:

1) Single Words

Simply type in the vocabulary phrase or grammatical structure, replacing a word with ‘?’, and you’ll find the most common single words that complete the phrase. For example, you’ve probably read grammar books that say the dependent preposition for ‘excited’ is always ‘about’, but look at this:

You can see that ‘I’m excited for you’ is used quite commonly too (7%), and increasingly we hear people say ‘I’m excited for the weekend’ too. Also worthy of note is the use of the full infinitive in ‘I’m excited to do something’ (32%), which is almost as frequent as ‘excited about’ (34%).

And if you want some examples of it, simply click on the result, like this:

2) Multiple Words

Instead of single words, you may want to investigate which phrases are most common, and you can do this by adding ‘…’. For example, it’s easy to see the most frequent ways of completing the phrase ‘to see … works’ and then click on the results to see the examples.

3) Comparing Words 

If you know some synonyms, but aren’t sure which is best in a particular phrase, you can use the square brackets ‘[  ]’ to compare them.

Or compare them in a specific phrase, like this:

This can be very useful for grammar too. Take, for example, these sentences:

  1. The key to doing well is hard work (‘to’ used as a preposition followed by the gerund ‘doing’)
  2. The key to do well is hard work (‘to’ used as part of the infinitive ‘to do’)

Now, you might have a strong feeling that 1) is correct, but because 2) is used increasingly often, you’ve probably heard it, and so might want to check it. A quick search on Netspeak will give you a bit more confidence that you’re right to carry on saying ‘the key to doing well…’

4) Comparing Similar Words

One of the great things about Netspeak is you can react quickly to questions and queries as they arise in the classroom, and even train students in how to use it themselves. For example, ‘react quickly’ – is ‘quickly’ the best adverb for the verb ‘react’? Let’s see.


When you’re not sure which is the best word to express a similar meaning, you can use the ‘#’ symbol, like this:

And then you’ll see that ‘quickly’, ‘rapidly’ and ‘promptly’ are the adverbs meaning ‘fast’ that are most frequently used with ‘react’.


5) Combining Search Options

The last thing we’ll look at is the possibility of combining these searches. Let’s say you want to find the most common phrase that goes with ‘I find it’, you just add an ellipsis ‘…’ and you can see these results:

You will have noticed that the most common adjectives relate to something being difficult. But you also notice that there are also common modifiers like ‘very’ or ‘quite’, and you decide to search for those. So you could enter this:

Or this:

Some people may think that this is very useful for teachers with English as a second language, as it helps build their confidence that any phrase they’re teaching is the most natural way to say it. However, it is also true of teachers with English as a first language, as this type of information is not always obvious and intuitive. So getting familiar with a simple corpus linguistic tool like Netspeak, might be really beneficial for all of us teachers, as well as for our language awareness, and ultimately, for our students. – symbol tools

Final Thoughts

This corpus linguistic tool isn’t the most complex out there, but its simplicity is one of its main advantages. There are loads of reasons why a teacher might want to research language like this, but not just before lessons – it’s also a great idea to include students in this process, by going through it with them live in class, and being directed by their curiosity. We’d be very interested to hear about how you used it!



McBride, M. “Data-Driven Learning.” Modern English Teacher. Vol. 29, issue 2 (2020): 33.


Dewaele, J. M. (2018). Why the dichotomy ‘L1 versus LX user’is better than ‘native versus non-native speaker’. Applied Linguistics39(2), 236-240.


© Chris Bunyan, Joint Head of Teacher Training, ITTC, 2020

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