Informal concordance – an example

Informal concordance work: exploring the context of usage of a word

Sealey’s reply to Goater’s letter (which is below)

“I can offer some empirical evidence in support of Alan Goater’s intuitions about the contrasting connotations of ‘remain’ and ‘stay’ (Letters, 22 November). A search in the British National Corpus, one of the large databases of authentic texts used by linguists to identify patterns and track changes in the use of specific words, reveals that the grammatical subjects of ‘remain’ are typically abstractions, often in negative contexts. Frequent examples include ‘congestion’, ‘inflation’ and ‘pollution’, all of which ‘remain a problem’, while often ‘questions remain unanswered’ and ‘problems remain unsolved.’ The subjects of ‘stay’ are more likely to be people, in concrete contexts such as ‘stay close’, ‘stay the night’, and in phrases such as ‘stay the course’, ‘stay ahead of the game’ and ‘stay put’. If the public is consulted again on the issue of EU membership, this suggests an argument for ‘stay’ as the counterpart to ‘leave’ on the ballot paper.”

Alison Sealey
Lancaster University


Goater’s reply to Meek’s original article

“I found James Meek’s essay on Brexit and myths of Englishness very illuminating, but as ever I am struck by the lack of attention given to the subliminal effects of the two key words ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ on the minds of voters in the referendum (LRB, 11 October). In the absence of well-informed and reasoned debate many may well have been swayed, as Meek plausibly argues, by the power of suggestion. How significant then was it that the Old English word ‘leave’, with its positive connotations of permission, provision and respite, stood against the Old French ‘remain’, with its connotations of death, leftovers and failure? How might the vote have gone if the Old English ‘stay’ (vital support, self-control, stability, thoughtfulness) had been chosen for the campaign instead of ‘remain’? Who would not prefer to stay firm rather than remain obdurate? How many dogs ever won a pat on the head and a biscuit by complying with the command ‘Remain!’?”

Alan Goater
Chinley, Derbyshire

Original article
Brexit and Myths of Englishness
James Meek