Being Specific about Historical Change: The Influence of Sub-Register

Douglas E Biber, Bethany Gray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

27 Scopus citations


This article argues that historical linguistic change is mediated by register differences at a highly specific level. As a result, seemingly minor differences in register can correspond to meaningful and systematic differences in the patterns of linguistic change. Two specific case studies of twentieth-century historical change are presented. The first explores variation among sub-registers of news reportage, comparing the patterns of change in magazine articles from Time magazine to those found in newspaper articles from the New York Times. This case study shows that the differing readerships and purposes of magazines versus newspapers result in different historical-linguistic patterns of use. The second case study then explores variation among sub-registers of academic research writing. This study shows how differences associated with academic discipline (science vs. social science vs. humanities) correspond to systematically different trends in historical change. Even more surprising, this study shows that science articles published in journals aimed at multidisciplinary audiences differ from articles published in journals targeted toward specialized audiences. In the conclusion, we briefly consider the theoretical issue of whether these case studies illustrate historical change within a register or change to new registers. However, the primary goal of the article is methodological, to argue for more attention to register differences in corpus-based historical research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)104-134
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of English Linguistics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2013



  • academic discourse
  • corpus linguistics
  • English grammar
  • methodology
  • newspaper
  • register variation
  • written language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics

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