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Patterns and Development in the English Clause System

A Corpus-Based Grammatical Overview


Clarence Green


Heidelberg: Springer, 2016

Hardcover. ix+199 pages. ISBN 978-9811028809. €94


Reviewed by Laure Gardelle

Université Grenoble Alpes



This volume focuses on clause combination in English, more precisely on the relationship between the form of subordinate and coordinate clauses and their interpropositional function in managing discourse coherence. The theoretical framework is the Adaptive Approach to Grammar, a functional-cognitive model primarily developed by Givón (1979, 2012, 2015). The Adaptive Approach considers that a grammatical construction (including a clause type) is primarily shaped by its discourse-pragmatic functions, the main one of which is the management of discourse coherence. The aim of the book, therefore, goes beyond identifying the prototypical formal properties of each clause type; it argues that a clause type ‘looks as it does’ because its grammatical features act as psycholinguistic processing cues for its inter-clausal coherence function.

The volume proposes a review of existing research (chapters 1 to 3), followed by self-contained, but interconnected, corpus-based studies (chapters 4 to 7), and ends with a general discussion and evaluation (chapter 8). In the theoretical chapters, the author describes (among others) the main approaches to English subordinate clauses in grammars, and shows that classifications are far from being consensual, despite a good measure of common ground, and that some labels, such as ‘nominal clauses’, are sometimes used differently from one grammar to another. He proposes to distinguish broadly between ‘form-first’ descriptions (e.g. nominal, infinitive, etc. clauses) and ‘function-first’ descriptions (e.g. coordinate, adverbial, complement clauses). He also shows, for instance, that Huddleston & Pullum (2002) are the only grammar, among those consulted for the volume, to use the concept of ‘catenative clause’; they are also unique in not isolating a category of ‘adverbial’ clauses. The author then addresses the issue of clause hierarchy: his claim is that hierarchy among subordinate and coordinate clause types is not a secondary fact, but part of what speakers know about their language. For instance, the aspectual morphology in I saw the eagle flying is an automatic temporal cue indicating that the events are simultaneous. As such, hierarchy should have a prominent place in the analysis of the clause system. Hierarchy is based on the degree of integration of clauses; from a review of existing studies, the author distinguishes between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ clauses. The former show a higher degree of dependence on the clause with which they combine (typically a main clause) than the latter. He then proposes his own hierarchy of functional integration, based on whether the clauses are finite, semi-finite or non-finite (that is, according to their degree of independent tense / aspect properties):

(tightest) infinitival > present participle > past participle > content > relative > comparative > adverbial > asymmetric coordinate > symmetric coordinate (loosest)

This classification concerns what the author identifies as prototypical forms; for instance, ‘relative clauses’ are to be understood only as those with finite forms. Non-prototypical forms share properties with other clause types, so that category boundaries for these are not as watertight. This makes interesting reading, though one may wonder whether further research could refine the classification; for instance, when an ‘infinitival clause’ is an adjunct, rather than a complement or a modifier, is it sill tighter than any other type of clause? Some minor details of classification are also extremely unusual, such as when (in the time when she sang) analysed as a relative pronoun, or to (in the key to understanding the material) considered as an infinitival marker followed by a present participle clause.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore the diachrony of subordinate clauses. The Adaptive Approach to Grammar claims that in language evolution, there is a consistent directional drift towards tighter grammatical combinations – this is a matter of frequency development rather than grammar, and the broad picture does not preclude fluctuations at points. The author’s corpus study, based on the syntactically parsed corpora made available in the past decade, provides convincing evidence of this drift: it shows that in English, there has been a decrease in the relative frequencies of coordination and an increase for subordination; the proportion of adverbial clauses has also decreased, from nearly 30% of all cases of subordination in Old English, to just about 20% in Middle English and Early Modern English, to less than 15% during the Modern period. A chi square test finds this decline to be statistically significant. Similarly, the corpus study finds a decline in the use of comparative clauses, relative clauses and content / that clauses; conversely, the clause types that show tighter degrees of integration (past participle, present participle and infinitival clauses, that is, non-finite or semi-finite clauses) have increased in frequency. Existing research on the development of individual clauses in the history of English proposes two pathways of development: expansion of some clause types into new contexts of use, and expansion into contexts in which they compete with looser clause types and become an alternative to those types.

Chapters 6 and 7 assess the clause combination theory of the Adaptive Approach against other parameters. One of them is discourse coherence: if the clause hierarchy plays a central role in managing discourse coherence, then it should take over some of the functional load of managing discourse from other types of cohesive ties. The author finds this to be the case. Another parameter is that of isomorphic development across language areas: the author shows that on the whole, the increased frequency of tightly integrated clauses holds not only for diachronic syntax, but also for spoken language as opposed to written, and in the field of language acquisition (teenagers are found to use more tightly integrated clauses than children).

The author concludes from all this, among others, that the increase in the frequency of tightly integrated clauses is the result of cognitive efficiency: FMRI and ERP brain imaging experiments suggest that adding cohesive ties makes the processing of relationships between propositions less cognitively demanding.

The volume makes a valuable contribution to the field of clause combination, mostly through its extensive corpus studies. The reader might have wished for a tighter integration of the various chapters. As indicated in the preface, the book reads as a series of interconnected studies, where each chapter may be consulted independently; the downside is a slight lack of logical continuity sometimes, especially when moving on from the critical review of clause classifications in grammars to the author’s own choice of clause types when he proposes a clause hierarchy. The reader also wonders sometimes where exactly a given finding leads to from a theoretical point of view – and finds the answer only in the conclusion of the chapter, which is then revealing in that respect. Still, the corpus studies, with their very clearly laid out methodology, caveats and findings, make very interesting reading, and the volume should therefore be recommended to anyone who wishes to know more about the domain.


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