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A Corpus-Based Study of SINCE-Clauses in Contemporary English


Bénédicte Guillaume


Collection Interlangues

Toulouse : Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2014

Broché. 208 p. ISBN 978-2810703234. 21€


Reviewed by Geneviève Girard-Gillet

Université Paris III–Sorbonne Nouvelle



The corpus-based study of since clauses in contemporary English, by Bénédicte Guillaume, is a well-researched analysis of the data contributing to the temporal or causal interpretation of sentences containing a since conjunction, and of the reasons why some ambiguity might nevertheless exist.

The question whether we are dealing with only one marker or with two markers is still debatable, but it is clear that the origin of since, siþþan in Old English, is a temporal marker, which took on a causal meaning in Middle English only (Molencki, 2007), gaining momentum until the 16th century. Hence the necessity to distinguish between two possible interpretations that co-exist nowadays.

The analysis is based on a random selection of 526 examples retrieved from the 25,988 uses of subordinator since in the BNC. Such a selection was necessary as Bénédicte Guillaume was interested in the enunciative context in which the clauses occurred, and therefore needed to consider various parameters at work, among which tenses, aspectual markers, and modals in the main and the subordinate clause, with a view to understanding the strategy of the speaker in the exchange. The confrontation of several criteria, syntactic, semantic, was indeed required to opt for the expected interpretation. 263 occurrences are analysed in detail within a context of up to 12 lines, with an average of 6 approximately.

Bénédicte Guillaume adopts an enunciative approach, inspired by Adamczewski and Culioli, but it is also influenced by different other theories (Traugott and the concept of subjectification, Lecercle and the notion of the remainder). She is indebted to various researchers having already studied the role of since (Deléchelle, De Cola-Sekali, Bourdin, among others), but presents her own conclusions in various graphs and charts, made possible by the new electronic tools. Some confirm previous analyses, some others question them.

The analysis is divided into 3 chapters :

- an analysis of causal since- clauses [21-110],

- an analysis of temporal since-clauses [111-166],

- from the origin to the remainder: the contribution of ambiguity and hybridism to the study of since-clauses [167-186].

CHAPTER ONE: causal since-clauses (Causal SC)

The causal clauses are by far the largest group of since-clauses represented in her corpus. There are 336 occurrences of them, which makes up about 64% of the occurrences retrieved. This high number may be explained by the fact that written examples are prevalent, even if the authors of the BNC endeavoured to balance the various genres. Bénédicte Guillaume was well aware of this bias, but thought that it was not a deterrent for her study as causal since-clauses are known to appear more in formal style than in oral exchanges.

She first opposes since and other subordinators such as because and as. She recalls previous analyses (Deléchelle, Sweetser, Lapaire & Rotgé) which concluded to the presupposed content of the since-clause, and to the possibility for the speaker to resort to such a choice to try and manipulate his addressee. This latter hypothesis calls for a detailed analysis of the corpus as regards the placement of a causal SC. The results show that contrary to what was expected a causal SC is more likely to be placed after than before the main clause [34]. A chi-square test proved that the postponing of the SC was not due to chance only. It seems, according to the corpus, that the speaker favours a fronted causal SC when he / she wishes to present its content as unquestionable, whereas the postponed position supposes that the addressee may not be fully aware of the event/fact described. What matters is whether the emphasis is on the consequence, and the main clause is fronted, or on the cause-consequence, and the causal SC is fronted. In scientific texts, the fronting of the causal SC proves to some extent that the conclusion rests on solid ground. But the distinction seems sometimes elusive as far as the motivations of the speaker are concerned.

Bénédicte Guillaume then takes into account the uses of tenses, aspects and modality in the since-clause and the main clause. In this part, she mainly draws on concepts developed by the Theory of the Predicative and Enunciative Operations (Culioli, Dufaye, Gilbert, De Cola-Sekali, among others). Two charts give the results [65 & 86]. For the main clause the present is used in 42 % of the cases, the preterite in 17%, a modal or modal phrase in 33%. For the SC there are 52% of present tense, 23% of preterite and 18% of modals. The most frequent combinations are: present + present (118 occurrences), modal + present (52 occurrences), preterite + preterite (42) [100]. These data enable B.Guillaume to better understand the scope of the cause and effect relationship. In 59% cases a fact is justified by a fact or a property, in 20% a personal judgement or a hypothesis is justified by a fact or a property, and in 9% a fact is justified by a personal judgment or a hypothesis. She concludes that a tendency can be deduced, namely that whenever the SC is fronted it is the cause and effect relationship between the two clauses that is highlighted, whereas whenever the SC is postponed, it is the content of the main clause that is emphasised. The analyses of the TAM markers proved to be particularly illuminating to show to what extent causal and temporal since-clauses differ.

CHAPTER TWO: temporal since-clauses (temporal SC)

The study of this type of since-clause, in relation to chapter one, is meant to lead to a hypothesis concerning the nature of since : can we say that there is one and only one marker in contemporary English?

There are 125 examples of temporal SCs, which means three causal SCs to one temporal SC. Bénédicte Guillaume does not deem this fact too significant as, again, it is clear that the high proportion of written data can explain the discrepancy.

The first remark is that a temporal SC does not have the backgrounding effect of a causal SC. It provides new information and functions as a temporal locator for the main clause. Another difference is, most often, the absence of a punctuation mark, and less liberty in its placement. 2/3 are postponed and 85% of the postponed cases are not preceded by a punctuation mark. The fronted cases bear some resemblance with causal SCs, providing a kind of “mixed type of location” for the main clause, but they cannot be considered as hybrid examples. This point is taken up in the third chapter.

The analyses of the TAM markers, after those by De Cola-Sekali (1992) and Wyld (1993) give the following results: the present perfect (progressive or not) is present in 79% of cases, and the recourse to modals is almost completely ruled out in the main clauses. There are a few cases of present perfect after since, as in since we’ve tried to find him, but it is the preterite, as expected, that denotes the starting point of the event, in the since-clauses. The conclusion then is that the proportions of each verbal marker in the main clauses of the temporal SCs are exactly the opposite of those that were found in the main clauses of causal SCs. The most frequent combinations are present perfect + preterite (49 case out of 90), then progressive present perfect + preterite (8 cases only), pluperfect + preterite (8 cases too). Interestingly enough, B. Guillaume analyses cases not mentioned in grammar textbooks, such as their worst League start to a season since 1953, where the temporal location concerns a noun phrase. A large majority of the NPs appearing there contains an ordinal, for instance, the first+ NP... or a comparative, and the SC provides the starting point of a scanning operation over a period of time. Another special case is the cleft-sentence, it is ...since. Though it has already been well analysed (Rivière), B. Guillaume studies the 11 occurrences of her corpus to show their specificity. She confirms Rivière’s hypothesis that such constructions fall into two main categories from a semantic point of view.

CHAPTER THREE: from the origin to the remainder: the contribution of ambiguity and hybridism to the study of since-clauses.

In this chapter, B. Guillaume tackles the question of whether since, as a subordinator, can be considered as one and only one marker in present-day English. To this end, she comes back to the origin of since in Old English, which was used as an adverb and a conjunction (Bourdin). Molencki’s study of several large corpora of Middle English (2007) proves that the causal meaning emerged much later than the temporal meaning. Its evolution supports Traugott’s theory of subjectification (1989), which posits that semantic extension is generally from a more concrete towards a more abstract meaning. This leads B. Guillaume to reject the hypothesis of a complementary distribution, on the basis of her detailed analyses of causal and temporal since. What can be deduced from the evolution acknowledged is that the meanings and uses of since over time will continue in the future. But in the present study, an analysis of “hybrid” cases seems necessary to assess all the parameters that play a role in the semantic interpretation. B. Guillaume thus tries to clarify the circumstances under which a subordinate clause can be ambiguous. The first two examples suggested are invented ones, and we can wonder whether they are really ambiguous: since he got his PhD at Cambridge, John has been offered several interesting jobs; she’s been walking to work since her car packed up. The interpretation is indeed deduced from the cultural, logical background shared by the speakers, and from the syntactic and semantic criteria described in the previous chapters. This means that certain combinations are more likely than others to lead to ambiguity, but a large context usually lifts the doubts. There remain nevertheless border-line cases which are best accounted for by resorting to Lecercle’s theory of language, and accepting the necessary existence of “grey areas” which do not call for more adequate analyses.


Bénédicte Guillaume has a comprehensive knowledge of the domain she is working on, as the list of over 80 references testifies. The index makes the reading very easy and her style is clear and the argumentation solid. Her corpus provides numerous facts and statistics which are highly significant and they confirm the importance of working on attested examples in a large context. The role of the speaker in the enunciative strategy is well examined, along with the part played by tenses, aspects and modals, and contributes to the semantic interpretation in cases of possible misunderstanding. The overriding interest of the study is the insistence throughout the book on the necessary co-operation of various factors / parameters toward the construal of meaning, and such an approach should pave the way to other enunciative studies on the relationship between main clauses and subordinate ones.


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