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The range of linguistic units: Distance effects in English mandative subjunctive constructions

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This study examines the role of distance in the decision among grammatical variants. The empirical test case is the English mandative subjunctive construction, which co-occurs with an embedded modal auxiliary, a subjunctive or an indicative verb form. The fact that the subjunctive is triggered by specific lexical items allows one to measure the distance between the triggering unit and the target verb. This distance is found to play a significant role in the grammatical decision process. With increasing distance between trigger and target, the probability of selecting a modal auxiliary increases and the probability of selecting the subjunctive decreases. The theoretical account hinges on the range and strength of linguistic units. Syntactic units (i.e. modals) are claimed to have a wider range than morphological units (i.e. indicative and subjunctive). Furthermore, the indicative is claimed to have a wider range than the subjunctive. Varying ranges are interpreted as varying decay rates. The lower decay rate of syntactic as compared to morphological units results from the syntactic level being superordinated to the morphological level in language production. The inclusion of the semantic and the phonological levels confirms that the position of a level in the structural hierarchy determines its range.


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Author’s address: Department of English, University of Hamburg, Überseering 35, 22297 Hamburg,
Author’s address: Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131,
Author’s address: Department of English, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Universitätsstrasse 1, 40225 Düsseldorf,


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A foretaste of the final product was given in a pleasant atmosphere at the University of Bamberg in June 2016. Our heartfelt thanks go to Tayo Takada, Gonca Bakir and André Geisler who invested much effort in the data coding procedure, to Julia Schlüter for helpful comments and to Benedikt Szmrecsanyi for sharing some of his data with us. We would have liked to have seen Tayo’s name at the top of the page, but unfortunately things do not always turn out the way they should. The final version has greatly benefited from the suggestions of the three Journal of Linguistics referees, to whom we gladly express our gratitude.



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