What are some good and authoritative references/data sources for modern usage examples of words? My typical workflow of learning a new word is to look it up on OED and read the definitions and example sentences. But a huge drawback and uncomfortableness is that OED's example sentences are typically old or oldest usage example sentences that their editors could find which is NOT the best resource for learning the words' usage in modern context. What are some other references and data sources I should use to complement OED?

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  • Resource requests are typically on Meta. – Andrew Leach Sep 6 '16 at 20:14
  • COCA for American, BNC for British, Google just to see. – Mitch Sep 6 '16 at 20:23
  • Wordnik is good for finding both old and new examples of context. See also our list of reference works here: meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2573/… – MetaEd Sep 6 '16 at 21:22
  • For up-to-date usage in context, compare the corpora listed at CORPORA. Context at the paragraph level or more is available after searching with most of the corpora (by clicking a context link). These corpora are a treasure trove of information. – JEL Sep 7 '16 at 0:32
  • The comments from @Mitch and @ JEL here are the sort of answers I'll give checkmark to. – qazwsx Sep 7 '16 at 22:23

I'd say that if you've got access to the full OED then that's a good place to start. No other source has (nor probably ever will have) that level of acknowledged expertise (as opposed to unaccredited sources like Urban Dictionary, or those like TheFreeDictionary that effectively "scrape" other dictionaries).

If you want to get a better handle on how the way a word is used might have shifted in very recent times, you need to bear in mind that some usages which might appear ubiquitous today may very well turn out to sound extremely dated (or even be unfamiliar to most) within a very few decades. I don't know, but my guess is most new usages don't actually last long (doubtless that's part of the reason dictionary editors tend to be conservative! :)

Having said that, I normally search Google Books with the search criteria set to 21st century if I want to see current instances in context, and NGrams if I want to see prevalence trends.

  • 2
    The first half of your answer seems manifestly missed my point. I do have full access to OED and that does NOT help with the specific thing I was looking for, hence I asked this question. Gladly, the second half of the answer looks relevant enough. – qazwsx Sep 6 '16 at 22:17
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    @qazwsx: I put the first paragraph in because I wasn't 100% sure you had access to the full OED. Lots of posters on ELU confuse it with the very limited spinoff version available free online. And I put the second paragraph in because we also get lots of people who don't fully appreciate the ephemerality of most recent coinages and usage changes. – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '16 at 22:34
  • Emphasizing the emphemerality of (newer) word meanings misses the point too. All I care is to find modern example sentences as good learning material for words, no matter if the word is a newer or ever-existing one, and no matter if some of its meaning is ephemeral or not. – qazwsx Sep 7 '16 at 22:15

What I think you are looking for is a number of examples of a target word in a sentence or paragraph (most dictionaries will give at least one sentence in its definition).

The OED is great (arguably the best) for definitions of words, with nuance provided by finely differentiated subdefinitions. Also, a number of context sentences are given to show it's historical usage (the first known appearance and then a handful of later appearances). Unfortunately these citations don't always give the full context.

A corpus, a well-curated collection of texts, should give not only good coverage of vocabulary in narrative texts, but also allow for you to search for individual items and look at the original text, the surrounding sentences for fuller context.

The most easily available corpora are:

  • COCA for primarily American English
  • BNC for primarily British English

But see the longer list of corpora here.

Because these are curated, they are likely to have few errors, but are more likely to come from formal sources (newspapers, official transcripts).

Internet search engines, like Google, give copious examples of search terms in context. However, the entire world is not curated, and the examples are not necessarily formatted well or even sentences. But it might be the easiest and quickest to use.

  • Urban Dictionary is not wholly terrible. It is really good at showing that a slang term exists and hints to its meaning. The entires are supposed to provide a social context for how the word is used, and sometimes those entries can give you a really good idea. However often the entries are composed with little thought to accuracy. – Mitch Sep 8 '16 at 16:16

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