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Determinants of the synthetic–analytic variation across English comparatives and superlatives 1


Some English adjectives accept both synthetic and analytic comparative and superlative forms (e.g. thicker vs more thick, happiest vs most happy). As many as 20+ variables have been claimed to affect this choice (see Leech & Culpeper 1997; Lindquist 2000; Mondorf 2003, 2009). However, many studies consider one variable at a time without systematically controlling for other variables (i.e. they take a monofactorial approach). Further, very little research has been done on superlatives. Following Hilpert's (2008) multifactorial study, we investigate the simultaneous contribution of 17 variables towards comparative and superlative alternation and further measure the strength(s) of the predictors. On the whole, phonological predictors are much more important than syntactic and frequency-related predictors. The predictors of the number of syllables and final segments in <-y> consistently outrank other predictors in both models. Important differences have also been identified. Many syntactic variables, such as predicative position and presence of complements, are weak or non-significant in the comparative model but have stronger effects in the superlative model. Further, higher frequency of an adjective leads to a preference for the synthetic -er variant in comparatives but the analytic most variant in superlatives. The study shows that generalizations about comparatives do not straightforwardly carry over to superlatives.

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We want to express our gratitude to Britta Mondorf, Javier Pérez-Guerra and three anonymous reviewers for comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. An earlier version of the article was presented at the 5th International Conference on the Linguistics of Contemporary English (ICLCE 5), University of Texas, Austin, 25–29 September 2013. We want to thank the audience for their comments. Last but not least, thanks go to Mercy Wong and Carleon Mendoza for their hard work and patience with the annotation of the examples. All remaining errors are ours.

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English Language & Linguistics
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