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The Verb Phrase in English

Investigating Recent Language Change with Corpora


Edited by Bas Aarts, Joanne Close, Geoffrey Leech & Sean Wallis


Studies in English Language Series

Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. xxv+445 p. ISBN 978-1107016354. £70.00


Reviewed by Martin Hilpert

Université de Neuchâtel


How quickly does the English language change? This book brings together fourteen studies of grammatical change that provide a joint answer: major changes can be observed over the course of only a few generations. These studies share a common focus on the English verb phrase, and they converge on developments that have been going on in the very recent past, some over the last two centuries, some only during the last decades. This joint focus serves to make a strong overall point, namely that even central areas of grammar, such as the verb phrase, exhibit substantial variation and can change rather swiftly. This result represents the combined findings of individual case studies on structures such as the English perfect (Bowie et al.), the progressive (Levin, Smith and Leech, Pfaff et al.), complement-taking predicates (Davies, Callies, Krug and Schützler), comment clauses (Kaltenböck), modal auxiliaries (Aarts et al., Williams, Johansson), nominalisations (Biber and Gray), as well as markers of negation (Varela Pérez), and quotation (Tagliamonte). The finding that all of these structures are undergoing change is important enough in itself, but most readers of The Verb Phrase in English will in fact already be sympathetic to that idea and consult the volume instead for its methodological aspects. All case studies are based on empirical data from historical linguistic corpora, and the volume documents the development of increasingly sophisticated ways of dealing with data of this kind. The linguistic changes that are observed are not only described qualitatively: rather, all contributions in the volume aim to quantify their observations and to substantiate claims about ongoing changes through the use of inferential statistical methods. This leads not only to greater accuracy in linguistic description, but it also enables researchers to ask new questions and to develop new hypotheses about language change.

The following paragraphs select some of the findings from the book in order to sketch a rough outline of how the English verb phrase has changed in recent times. Obviously, many aspects of the verb phrase have remained stable. English verb phrases still follow noun phrases in declarative clauses. Verbs still inflect for tense and agree with their subjects. Yet, change is underway. Many of the case studies in The Verb Phrase in English document changes that show themselves in shifting patterns of frequency. Expressions that used to be relatively infrequent become more popular and sometimes even oust expressions that used to be the default way of verbalising a certain concept. For instance, Aarts et al. [14-45] investigate speakers’ choices between the modal auxiliaries will and shall, documenting a substantial decline of shall in contexts where either of the two could be used. Similarly, Levin [187-216] analyses the progressive and shows how this construction has increased in frequency, extending its range of uses to stative verbs (I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time) and predicative constructions (You’re being unreasonable). Speakers now choose the progressive in situations that historically would have called for the use of a different grammatical form. This type of analysis requires the researcher to identify contexts of variation, which is often not a trivial task. Specifically, if we observe a drop in the frequency of a grammatical form such as the past perfect (Dad asked me if Sarah had phoned me on Sunday), does that mean that the form faces competition from an alternative expression, or does it mean that there are simply fewer contexts in which speakers feel the need to talk about a backshifted past event? Bowie et al. [318-352] explicitly tackle this question, suggesting that changes in absolute frequencies ought to be compared against an adjusted baseline, so that for instance the frequency of the past perfect is calculated not in terms of raw counts, but instead as a proportion of past-tense marked verb phrases.

Another issue that is discussed by several of the contributions is that a linguistic structure may change with regard to its distribution, either across different groups of speakers or across different registers of language use. To give an example of the former, Tagliamonte [133-154] discusses the use of the quotative marker be like (as in And I was like, why not?) in Canadian English. She finds that this marker is distributed unevenly across speakers of different ages, indicating a change in progress, but she also documents differences across male and female speakers, with adolescent females showing the highest rate in their usage. The dynamics of a given change thus have to be understood against the backdrop of the social environment in which it takes place. Register-related changes are discussed for instance by Biber and Gray [99-132], who present a diachronic study of academic writing, documenting a drift towards nominal structures at the expense of verbal structures. This drift expresses itself in the increasing reliance on structures such as nominal modifiers (air flow limitations), attributive adjective constructions (organisational imperfections), and appositive noun phrases (the observed peak growth of our wild parr, a period when natural food was particularly abundant). These recent changes have affected informational registers such as academic writing while leaving non-informational registers, such as spoken conversation, unaffected.

Lastly, The Verb Phrase in English points the reader towards a number of verbal constructions that are genuine newcomers. Not incidentally perhaps, several of these can be situated in the field of verbal complementation, which has been known as a very dynamic grammatical domain in the recent history of English. Krug and Schützler [155-186] present a study of a construction that involves the noun idea and a to-infinitive in examples such as The idea is to meet John at eight. It is shown that the construction, aside from increasing in frequency, has recently acquired the function of a marker of intentionality, and that this semantic function correlates with several structural traits, specifically the presence of a definite determiner (the idea, not an idea), the disyllabic, iambic pronunciation of idea as 'Idea' rather than "iDEA", and the linkage of idea and is through an intrusive /r/. Krug and Schützler take these simultaneous developments to indicate that the construction currently undergoes grammaticalisation. Callies [239-255] tracks the development of bare infinitival complements with verbs such as allow, assist, and enable, which are conventionally used with a to-infinitive. Yet, examples such as I can’t see him allowing me ø take the children so far away from London are robustly attested in corpora of recent English. Callies furthermore shows that the presence or absence of the infinitive marker to is probabilistically conditioned by several structural and psycholinguistic factors. One such factor is the horror-aequi effect: speakers are more likely to drop the to if that element has been produced just recently. Another factor is structural priming, which leads speakers to re-use a syntactic structure that has occurred in the recent linguistic context. Since the distribution of to-infinitive complements and bare infinitival complements is not random, but systematically governed by conditioning factors, Callies concludes that the emergence of new bare infinitival complements is in fact a change in the grammatical system of English.

There are further aspects of The Verb Phrase in English that would merit discussion here; however, it is time to come to an overall evaluation. The editors and the authors are to be complimented on a volume that showcases the merits of the currently ongoing enterprise of investigating recent change in English on the basis of diachronic corpora. The book offers the reader an authoritative and well-organised overview of changes that pertain to verbal structures. At the same time, the book points the reader towards open theoretical questions and methodological issues. As the case studies illustrate, research in English corpus linguistics is currently building bridges towards neighbouring fields, notably variationist sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, grammaticalisation theory, and Construction Grammar. At the same time there is a noticeable push towards methodological innovation, which includes the aim to account for variability in and across corpora, to quantify findings, and to present estimates of effect sizes. All of this indicates that we see a dynamic, thriving research program at work in The Verb Phrase in English.

The only criticism that could be raised here is that these dynamic developments could, in some cases, be stretched even further than is attempted by the authors. An example of this might be the connection to variationist sociolinguistics. Several of the contributions point out that sociolinguistic concepts such as the context of variation or the apparent-time approach are of crucial importance to the study of recent change. An idea that seems just as important, but which is not mentioned much, is the approach of using multivariate statistical techniques to model the simultaneous influence of several variables on the use of a linguistic structure. It stands to reason that the phenomena investigated in the case studies would benefit substantially from the adoption of such methods (and several of the represented authors are in fact using these techniques in other publications). Another project for future developments of the research program might be a more active engagement with theoretical questions in psycholinguistics, the study of grammaticalisation, or Construction Grammar. The studies in The Verb Phrase in English apply certain ideas from these frameworks, but it is not their central purpose to use the empirical, corpus-based findings as a way to refine parts of those frameworks, which is what would draw theoreticians from those fields towards corpus linguistics. Summing up this point, let me clarify that the contributions to the volume are excellent just as they are. However, as excellent studies usually do, they point the way beyond themselves, encouraging work that continues and extends the tradition.

To come to an end, in the light of the points that were discussed above, I highly recommend The Verb Phrase in English, both as a resource for students and scholars who want an overview of currently ongoing changes in the verbal domain, but also, and no less importantly, as an inspiration for further research.


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