Skip to main content

Variation in English genitives across modality and genres1


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.

Hide All

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.

Hide All
Altenberg, B. 1982. The genitive v. the of-construction: A study of syntactic variation in 17th Century English. Malmö: CWK Gleerup.
Anschutz, Arlea. 1997. How to choose a possessive noun phrase construction in four easy steps. Studies in Language 21, 135.
Baayen, Harald. 2008. Analyzing linguistic data. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J. & Bates, D. M.. 2008. Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language 59, 390412.
Biber, Douglas. 1988. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Biber, Douglas. 1995. Dimensions of register variation: A cross-linguistic comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Biber, Douglas. 2003. Compressed noun-phrase structures in newspaper discourse. In Aitchison, J. & Lewis, D. M. (eds.), New media language, 169–81. London: Routledge.
Biber, Douglas & Finegan, Edward. 1989. Drift and the evolution of English style: A history of three genres. Language 65 (3), 487517.
Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan, & Finegan, Edward. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Longman.
Bresnan, Joan, Cueni, Anna, Nikitina, Tatiana & Harald, Baayen. 2007. Predicting the dative alternation. In Boume, G., Kraemer, I. & Zwarts, J. (eds.), Cognitive foundations of interpretation, 6994. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.
Bresnan, Joan & Ford, Marilyn. 2010. Predicting syntax: Processing dative constructions in American and Australian varieties of English. Language 86 (1), 168213.
Ehret, Katharina. 2011. The role of rhythm as a factor in historical genitive variability. Masters thesis. University of Freiburg.
Garretson, Gregory, O’Connor, M. Catherine, Skarabela, Barbora & Hogan, Marjorie. 2004. Coding practices used in the project Optimality Typology of Determiner Phrases.
Geeraerts, Dirk, Kristiansen, Gitte & Peirsman, Yves. 2010. Introduction. Advances in cognitive sociolinguistics. In Geeraerts, Dirk, Kristiansen, Gitte & Peirsman, Yves (eds.), Advances in cognitive sociolinguistics, 119. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Gelman, Andrew. 2008. Scaling regression inputs by dividing by two standard deviations. Statistics in Medicine 27 (15), 2865–73.
Gelman, Andrew & Hill, Jennifer. 2007. Data analysis using regression and multilevel/hierarchical models. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Godfrey, John J., Holliman, Edward C. & McDaniel, Jane. 1992. SWITCHBOARD: Telephone speech corpus for research and development. Proceedings of ICASSP-92, 517–20.
Grafmiller, Jason & Shih, Stephanie. 2011. New approaches to end weight. Variation and Typology: New Trends in Syntactic Research. Helsinki, Finland, 26.Aug.
Harrell, Frank. 2001. Regression modeling strategies. New York: Springer.
Hawkins, John A. 1994. A performance theory of order and constituency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hinrichs, Lars & Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. 2007. Recent changes in the function and frequency of standard English genitive constructions: A multivariate analysis of tagged corpora. English Language and Linguistics 11 (3), 437–74.
Huddleston, Rodney & Pullum, Geoffrey al. 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hundt, Marianne & Mair, Christian. 1999. ‘Agile’ and ‘uptight’ genres: The corpus-based approach to language change in progress. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 4, 221–42.
Jucker, Andreas. 1993. The genitive versus the of-construction in newspaper language. In Jucker, Andreas (ed.), The noun phrase in English: Its structure and variability, 121–36. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.
Kaye, Alan S. 2004. On the bare genitive. English Today 20 (3), 57–8.
Kreyer, Rolf. 2003. Genitive and of-construction in modern English. Processability and human involvement. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 8, 169207.
Leech, Geoffrey & Smith, Nicholas. 2006. Recent grammatical change in English 1961–1992: Some preliminary findings of a comparison of American with British English. In Renouf, Antoinette & Kehoe, Andrew (eds.), The changing face of corpus linguistics, 185204. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Marcus, Mitchell P., Marcinkiewicz, Mary Ann & Santorini, Beatrice. 1993. Building a large annotated corpus of English: The Penn Treebank. Computational Linguistics 19, 313–30.
Murphy, Raymond. 1997. English grammar in use with answers: A self-study reference and practice book for intermediate students of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
O’Connor, M. Catherine, Maling, Joan, Anttila, Arto, Fong, Vivienne, Garretson, Gregory, Skarabela, Barbora, Hogan, Marjorie & Karlsson, Fred. 2006. Boston University Noun Phrase Corpus.
Osselton, Noel E. 1988. Thematic genitives. In Nixon, Graham & Honey, John (eds.), An historic tongue: Studies in English linguistics in memory of Barbara Strang. London: Routledge.
Payne, John & Berlage, Eva. 2011. The effect of semantic relations on genitive variation. International Society for the Linguistics of English 2. Boston 17–21 June.
Pinheiro, José C. & Bates, Douglas M.. 2000. Mixed effects models in S and S-PLUS. New York: Springer.
Quinion, Michael. November 12, 2005. Double possessive. World Wide Words. Retrieved 9 February 2010. From -dou3.htm.
Quirk, Randolph, Greenbaum, Sidney, Leech, Geoffrey & Svartvik, Jan. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London and New York: Longman.
Rosenbach, Anette. 2002. Genitive variation in English: Conceptual factors in synchronic and diachronic studies. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Rosenbach, Anette. 2003. Aspects of iconicity and economy in the choice between the s-genitive and the of-genitive in English. In Rohdenburg, Günter & Mondorf, Britta (eds.), Determinants of grammatical variation in English, 379412. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Rosenbach, Anette. 2005. Animacy versus weight as determinants of grammatical variation in English. Language 81 (3). 613–44.
Rosenbach, Anette. 2006. Descriptive genitives in English: A case study on constructional gradience. English Language and Linguistics 10 (1), 77118.
Rosenbach, Anette. 2008. Animacy and grammatical variation: Findings from English genitive variation. Lingua 118, 151–71.
Schlüter, Julia. 2005. Rhythmic grammar: The influence of rhythm on grammatical variation and change in English. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Shih, Stephanie, Grafmiller, Jason, Futrell, Richard & Bresnan, Joan. Forthcoming. Rhythm's role in genitive and dative construction choice in spoken English. In Vogel, Ralf & van der Vijver, Rubem (eds.), Rhythm in phonetics, grammar, and cognition. Berlin: De Gruyter
Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. 2006. Morphosyntactic persistence in spoken English: A corpus study at the intersection of variationist sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and discourse analysis. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. 2010. The English genitive alternation in a cognitive sociolinguistics perspective. In Geeraerts, Dirk, Kristiansen, Greta & Peirsman, Yves (eds.), Advances in cognitive sociolinguistics, 141–66. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. 2013. The great regression: Genitive variability in Late Modern English news texts. In Börjars, Kersti, Denison, David & Scott, Alan (eds.), Morphosyntactic categories and the expression of possession, 5989. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt & Hinrichs, Lars. 2008. Probabilistic determinants of genitive variation in spoken and written English: A multivariate comparison across time, space, and genres. In Nevalainen, Terttu, Taavitsainen, Irma, Pahta, Päivi & Korhonen, Minna, (eds.), The dynamics of linguistic variation: Corpus evidence on English past and present, 291309. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Tagliamonte, Sali & Jarmasz, Lidia. 2008. Variation and change in the English genitive: A sociolinguistic perspective. Paper presented at the 82nd annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. Chicago, 4 January.
Taylor, John R. 1989. Possessive genitives in English. Linguistics 27, 663–86.
Taylor, John R. 1996. Possessives in English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Wasow, Thomas. 2002. Postverbal behavior. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Weiner, E. Judith & Labov, William. 1983. Constraints on the agentless passive. Journal of Linguistics 19 (1), 2958.
Wolk, Christoph, Bresnan, Joan, Rosenbach, Anette & Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. 2013. Dative and genitive variability in Late Modern English: Exploring cross-constructional variation and change. Diachronica 30 (3), 382419.
Zaenen, Annie, Carlette, Jean, Garretson, Gregory, Bresnan, Joan, Koontz-Garboden, Andrew, Nikitina, Tatiana, O’Connor, M. Catherine & Wasow, Tom. 2004. Animacy encoding in English: Why and how. In Webber, Bonnie & Byron, Donna (eds.), Proceedings of the 2004 ACL Workshop on Discourse Annotation, 118–25. East Stroudsburg, PA: Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
  • URL: /core/journals/english-language-and-linguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed