Grammatical change in the noun phrase: The influence of written language use

Douglas Biber, Bethany Gray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Abstract

Many discussions of grammatical change have focused on grammatical innovation in the discourse contexts of conversational interaction. We argue here that it is also possible for grammatical innovation to emerge out of the communicative demands of written discourse. In particular, the distinctive communicative characteristics of academic writing (informational prose) have led to the development of a discourse style that relies heavily on nominal structures, with extensive phrasal modification and a relative absence of verbs. By tracking the historical development of this discourse style, we can also observe the development of particular grammatical functions that are emerging in writing. We focus here on two grammatical features nouns as nominal premodifiers and prepositional phrases as nominal postmodifiers analyzing their historical development over the last four centuries in a corpus of academic research writing (compared to other registers such as fiction, newspaper reportage and conversation). Our analysis shows that these grammatical features were quite restricted in function and variability in earlier historical periods of English. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they became much more frequent and productive, accompanied by major extensions in their functions, variants, and range of lexical associations. These extensions were restricted primarily to informational written discourse, illustrating ways in which new grammatical functions emerge in writing rather than speech.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)223-250
Number of pages28
JournalEnglish Language and Linguistics
Volume15
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1 2011

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

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