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The semantics of English out-prefixation: a corpus-based investigation



The verbal prefix out- in its scalar-comparative sense is among the most productive English locative prefixes. Although several authors make use of the construction as a test environment for verb classification, few studies have looked at its semantics in any depth. Moreover, previous work on this prefix relies on fairly small databases or self-generated data, and no reliable corpus-based investigations are available, calling into question the usefulness of present semantic analyses and the application of the construction as a test environment.

This study aims at remedying these shortcomings via presenting a database culled mostly from COCA and iWeb. Based on the analysis of the wide range of attestations in the database it is shown that existing generalizations and previous semantic analyses are wrong and that particular restrictions proposed in the literature are not borne out by the data. Several claims, including core features of the formalizations offered in the literature, have to be discarded. Furthermore, alleged base-restrictions on the input out- allows are shown to be far too restrictive. This holds for verbal as well as adjectival and nominal bases. It is shown that approaches that deny the existence of category-changing prefixes are misguided.

Overall, the construction is more flexible regarding possible interpretations and more promiscuous with respect to possible bases than previously thought. At the same time, the system is not unrestricted. Generalizing over the data, this article lays out the requirements and specific challenges any full formal account of out- will have to match.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


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I thank Ingo Plag, Martin Schäfer and two anonymous reviewers for valuable criticism and comments on this article. This work has partly been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG)/CRC 991 ‘The Structure of Representations in Language, Cognition, and Science’/Project C08 ‘The semantics of derivational morphology: A frame-based approach’.



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The semantics of English out-prefixation: a corpus-based investigation



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