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Cause in the Corpus

The verb cause is common in English (the 99th most common verb in the Oxford English Corpus as a whole, with 192,899 occurrences) and it’s likely to be part of every native speaker’s active vocabulary.

Try this exercise: first, think of a few sentences containing the verb cause.

You might come up with examples like these, which were made up by people when they were asked to do the same exercise:

The car went out of control and caused an accident.
The interruption in service was caused by unexpected shutdown.
The virus caused an epidemic.

The meaning seems to be quite clear. Here is a typical definition, found in many dictionaries:

cause v. be the cause of; make happen.

However, looking at the corpus evidence reveals something else about cause, which is not mentioned in the definition.

sample lines of evidence for 'cause'

What do you notice about the object (death, damage, chaos, disturbance, and so on) for the verb in each case? They are different words and phrases but they all share one thing in common: each is a ‘bad’ or a negative thing, as judged from the speaker’s or writer’s perspective. So the corpus tells us that things that are caused are generally harmful things such as accidents and disease.

As native speakers, we ‘know’ this intuitively by the way we use the word day to day and by the way – as demonstrated above – we readily produce ‘artificial’ examples. All that is left is the need to confirm our findings from the tiny sample examined above by checking them against the corpus as a whole. To do this, we use the Sketch Engine software to produce a ‘word sketch’ for a collocational profile for cause (that is, the words alongside which it most commonly appears) across all 192,899 examples:

word sketch for 'cause'

The full picture for the objects of ‘cause’ confirms that harmful things are caused, while the list of subjects in the second column further confirms that harmful things are caused by harmful agents (virus, negligence, infection, vandal, etc.).

Finally, the dictionary entry can be written to reflect this more accurate view of the verb that we now have:

cause v. make (something, especially something bad) happen; be the cause of.

Back to Using the Corpus.

See more from The corpus and Oxford Dictionaries