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Variation in English genitives across modality and genres1

  • JASON GRAFMILLER (a1)
Abstract

The choice of genitive construction in English is conditioned by numerous semantic, syntactic and phonological factors. The present study explores the influence of these factors across different modalities (speech vs writing) and genres (e.g. press, fiction, etc.), and models the mediating effect of language-external variables on internal cognitive and linguistic factors within the context of a probabilistic grammar of genitive choice. The discussion revolves around debates concerning the driving force(s) behind recent changes in newspaper genitives, concluding that the trend reflects a push toward more economical modes of expression in reportage texts. Curiously, analysis finds few significant interactions with low-level processing-related factors, e.g. possessor frequency and lexical density – a surprising result in light of recent research. However, analysis further reveals significant inter-genre variability among several other crucial factors including possessor animacy and final sibilancy, which are significantly reduced in journalistic prose. These latter findings offer indirect evidence in favor of economization, and offer insight into the connections between external stylistic concerns, specific linguistic practices and internal probabilistic weights associated with specific grammatical constructions.

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1

Thanks to Stephanie Shih and Joan Bresnan for discussion and assistance with data annotation. Thanks also to Richard Futrell for assistance with the collection and coding of the Switchboard corpus data. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and feedback. This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. BCS-1025602 to Stanford University for the research project ‘Development of syntactic alternations’ (PI Joan Bresnan). The usual disclaimers apply.

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English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
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