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7 - The use of corpora - part two

"Now this case, considered in conjunction with the rest of my experience. was very instructive; it showed, in polyglot translations, as it were, the different ways in which the psychic apparatus reacts to the same exciting idea"1.

At the end of the previous unit we left off with the result of the query about "finer points" in the British National Corpus. Let us now see how we can use such a result to reconstruct the meaning of the ex-pression. Some of the sentences that we have found do not give clear indications about a precise sense, until we get to: ┬źOnce the topics are agreed, ques-tions will be asked which will fill in the finer points of the hypotheses┬╗. In this case, I think that the ex-pression can be translated as "details", or "particu-lars", like this: "Once the topics are agreed, ques-tions will be asked which will fill in the finer details of the hypotheses". Now I check if such a transla-tion satisfies the following occurrences as well. I think it can work with all the following occurrences, until I get to "Once you are familiar with the basic workings, don't forget to go back to the manual to learn about the program's finer points", where the hypothesis seems well confirmed because the "finer points" are opposed to "basic workings".

Moreover, I notice that the verb governing the "finer points" is "discuss" or similar verbs (this happens in seven cases out of fifty); my hypothesis is then that the optimal translation in Italian can be "discutere nei minimi particolari", a collocation in its turn, and I try to review these seven cases to check if the hypothesis works: and in the end I con-clude that yes, the translation works.

Now I want to answer the second question that I had asked at the beginning of the previous unit, that is if "finer points" is a collocation, a sort of "obligatory placement" of this adjective with this noun. To check this hypothesis I try to formulate a query in the same corpus in which I substitute "de-tails" for "points", the other alternative that I was offered by the consultation of the Cambridge dic-tionary. Here is the result I get:

Results of your search

Your query was

finer details

Only 18 solutions found for this query

AA1 744 The finer details will have to be added at a later date when experience of operating in a contract culture has been gained.

ALK 24 Moreover, he learned from his own experience that the most profitable truths were not the finer details of theology but the great essential teachings of Christianity.

B33 367 On quieter days the clinical teacher will have time to discuss the finer details

C8M 535 But the finer details

C8P 86 Before you start to make the invitations, discuss all the finer details

C9H 672 Although Chadwick was gigging, it seems, for six or seven years before the conception of The House Of Love, he's a touch loath to reveal the finer details

CBG 1110 Forest want an answer from Keane by the end of this week and he has asked for an extra couple of days to iron out the finer details.

CHT 796 The curricula and finer details of National Board approved programmes still have to be fully considered and agreed.

CHV 916 Sheer weight of dollars forced the ARFU to change hose broadcasters and the finer details, such as broadcasting times, have yet to be finalised.

CJ3 701 Although the pied flycatcher's adultery has been known about since 1950, it is only in the last few years that the scientist Rauno Alatalo and his colleagues, studying pied flycatchers in Sweden, have begun to unravel the finer details.

CLU 77 The team at Marham, overseen by Fred Beamish, have produced an aircraft which they proudly boast is one of the best preserved in the country and wish to express their thanks for their help to Pat Waterhouse, a former RAF sergeant painter and finisher now with the RAF Museum at Cardington, who provided invaluable help, Colin Jardine, manager of the Product Support Dept at BAe Manchester who provided all the technical drawings for the finishings and markings, and Sgt Tom Patel at RAF St Athan who supplied all the necessary stencils, enabling all the finer details to be added.

EA5 1366 We've been sent to sort out the finer details,'; Freddie said with a flash of inspiration.

ECT 351 It is certainly worth paying a little extra for better cloth, finer details and a better cut.

GUA 2292 Finer details of plumage only visible at close range.

HA7 1165 There are a few finer details to be worked out, a couple of modifications and so on, and some more costing.

JY2 666 Apart from the finer details of the carving, which she hadn't stopped to note, all the doors looked alike.

K51 991 The finer details of the proposals from Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine still have to be ironed out.

K97 12550 Les likes to be a perfectionist and when he shows you around his houses he enjoys pointing out those finer details which he believes give his homes that little extra which means so much.

Inserting in place of "details" those t a dictionary proposes as "synonyms" of "detail", i.e.:






proposing such words combined with "finer" in the British National Corpus I get as a result zero occur-rences. Now I have a fairly clear picture both of the meaning of the expression and of its status in the English language:

  • "finer points" is a collocation, the most used among the similar ones with 79 occurrences;
  • "finer details" is another collocation but less popular, it has more or less the same meaning;
  • "fine particulars" and other combinations are not collocations and are seldom found.

Even the internet, on the whole, can be con-sidered a huge electronic corpus. There are many substantial differences among the two corpora, however, and I want to stress at least two of them:

  • the BNC was artificially created by experts that consciously measured out registers and origins of the texts; internet, on the contrary, is a spon-taneous formation so to speak, where one risks finding many informal registers, because literary and/or copyright-protected works, for example, are missing;
  • the BNC consists in mostly British lexicon, while the internet is dominated by two other languages: U.S. English (until recently most websites were based in the U.S.), the other one is the so-called "international English", i.e. English spoken by citizens of the world that are not English mother tongue.

That having been said, it is true that one could use a normal search engine to do queries on the cor-pus-internet if, for nothing else, to get an approxi-mate idea of the usage frequency of given text strings. To get a confirmation of the hypotheses I had made, I tried inserting the indicated collocations in a search engine, in quotation marks, to get only the occurrences in which the two words are really positioned near one another and in that order:

finer points produces 152.000 results

finer details 51.400

finer particulars 32 (that are mainly from non English-speaking countries, which explains the un-usual collocation)

finer facts 59

finer information 479, mostly in technical contexts

finer minutiae 13

finer niceties 35

In the given case, the results that I got through the British National Corpus are confirmed also on world scale, with a few more details.

In this case the translation problem concerned a collocation: there was no problem in understanding the meaning of the single words that made up the string (fine and point), the problem resulted from their combination and semantic changes determined by it.

In the next unit we will still work on the con-textual meaning with more examples of different kind.


Bibliographical references

FREUD SIGMUND, L'interpretazione dei sogni, in Opere, vol. 3, Torino, Boringhieri, a cura di C. L. Musatti, 1966.

FREUD SIGMUND, The Interpretation Of Dreams, translated by A. A. Brill, London, G. Allen & company, 1913

1 Freud 1900: 239.