Is this problem giving you trouble? A corpus-based examination of the differences between the nouns problem and trouble

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Somjit Jirananthiporn

Abstract

This study investigates two near-synonymous nouns, problem and trouble, with a focus on differences in their frequencies, distribution patterns across text types, and collocations with verbs and adjectives. The data was extracted from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively. The overall frequency ranking found problem to occur more often in all the text types, with spoken and academic discourse topping the list and fiction at the bottom. In contrast, trouble is most commonly used in fiction and least used in academic prose. The disparity in their occurrences in different registers was somewhat in line with findings about the verb collocates of the synonym pair. Further analysis found trouble to collocate more often with verbs that are characteristic of conversations pervasive in fiction, i.e. phrasal verbs, modals, contractions. Observation about adjective collocates revealed that because problem has a less specific meaning than trouble, it occurs more freely with various adjectives. Finally, in terms of pedagogical implications, the results suggest that the two words be taught with emphasis on different lexico-grammatical aspects.

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