Skip to main content

Toward more accountability: Modeling ternary genitive variation in Late Modern English

  • Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (a1), Douglas Biber (a2), Jesse Egbert (a3) and Karlien Franco (a1)

Whereas the alternation between the s-genitive (the New Year's message) and the of-genitive (the message of the New Year) is well documented, our study offers a more accountable analysis of genitive variation by including noun-noun (NN)-genitives (the New Year message). We consider four different variable contexts (s versus of, NN versus of, NN versus s, and NN versus s versus of ), which we analyze using regression analysis. The dataset consists of 10,054 variable genitives drawn from the Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers. The material covers the period between 1650 and 2000, thus enabling us to track the evolution of variable genitive grammar in real time. We report that there is an overall drift toward the NN-genitive, which is preferred over other variants when constituent noun phrases are short, possessor constituents are inanimate, and possessum constituents are thematic. In addition to these substantive contributions, we showcase methods of dealing with a complex dataset covering nonbinary grammatical variation.

Hide All
Baayen, R. Harald. (2008). Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bates, Douglas, Maechler, Martin, & Bolker, Ben. (2012). lme4: Linear mixed-effects models using S4 classes. Available at: Accessed December 10, 2015.
Baugh, John. (1980). A re-examination of the Black English Copula. In Labov, W. (ed.), Locating language in time and space. New York: Academic Press. 83106.
Behaghel, Otto. (1909). Beziehungen zwischen Umfang und Reihenfolge von Satzgliedern. Indogermanische Forschungen 25:110142.
Biber, Douglas, Finegan, Edward, & Atkinson, Dwight. (1994). ARCHER and its challenges: Compiling and exploring A Representative Corpus of Historical English Registers. In Fries, G., Tottie, U., & Schneider, P. (eds.), Creating and using English language corpora: Papers from the Fourteenth International Conference on English Language Research and Computerized Corpora. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 113.
Biber, Douglas, & Gray, Bethany. (2011). Grammatical change in the noun phrase: The influence of written language use. English Language and Linguistics 15(2):223250.
Biber, Douglas, & Gray, Bethany. (2013). Being specific about historical change: The influence of sub-register. Journal of English Linguistics 41(2):104134.
Biber, Douglas, & Gray, Bethany. (2016). Grammatical complexity in academic English: Linguistic change in writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Biber, Douglas, Johansson, Stig, Leech, Geoffrey, Conrad, Susan, & Finegan, Edward. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Longman.
Burnham, Kenneth P., & Anderson, David Raymond. (2002). Model selection and multimodel inference a practical information-theoretic approach. 2nd ed.New York: Springer.
Ehret, Katharina, Wolk, Christoph, & Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. (2014). Quirky quadratures: On rhythm and weight as constraints on genitive variation in an unconventional data set. English Language and Linguistics 18(2):263303.
Feist, Jim. (2012). What controls the “genitive variation” in Present-Day English? Studies in Language 36(2):261299.
Gelman, Andrew, & Hill, Jennifer. (2007). Data analysis using regression and multilevel/hierarchical models. Analytical Methods for Social Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grafmiller, Jason. (2014). Variation in English genitives across modality and genres. English Language and Linguistics 18(3):471496.
Gries, Stefan Th. (2005). Syntactic priming: A corpus-based approach. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 34(4):365399.
Gries, Stefan Th. (2013). Statistics for linguistics with R: A practical introduction. 2nd rev. ed.Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
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):437474.
Hosmer, David W., & Lemeshow, Stanley. (2000). Applied logistic regression. New York: Wiley.
Jankowski, Bridget L., & Tagliamonte, Sali A. (2014). On the genitive's trail: Data and method from a sociolinguistic perspective. English Language and Linguistics 18(2):305329.
Labov, William. (1969). Contraction, deletion and inherent variability of the English copula. Language 45(4):715762.
Labov, William. (1972). Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
Labov, William. (1982). Building on empirical foundations. In Lehmann, W. & Malkiel, Y. (eds.), Perspectives on historical linguistics. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 1792.
MacDonald, Maryellen C. (2013). How language production shapes language form and comprehension. Frontiers in Psychology 4:226.
Meyerhoff, Miriam, & Walker, James A. (2007). The persistence of variation in individual grammars: Copula absence in “urban soujourners” and their stay-at-home peers, Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines). Journal of Sociolinguistics 11(3):346366.
Osselton, Noel. (1988). Thematic genitives. In Nixon, G. & Honey, J. (eds.), An historic tongue: Studies in English linguistics in memory of Barbara Strang. London: Routledge. 138144.
Pinheiro, José C., & Bates, Douglas M. (2000). Mixed-effects models in S and S-PLUS. New York: Springer.
Poplack, Shana, & Sankoff, David. (1987). The Philadelphia story in the Spanish Caribbean. American Speech 62(4):291314.
Raumolin-Brunberg, Helena. (2005). The diffusion of subject you: A case study in historical sociolinguistics. Language Variation and Change 17:5573.
R Development Core Team. (2013). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna, Austria. Available at: Accessed December 10, 2015.
Rickford, John R., Ball, Arnetha, Blake, Renee, Jackson, Raina, & Martin, Nomi. (1991). Rappin on the copula coffin: Theoretical and methodological issues in the analysis of copula variation in African-American Vernacular English. Language Variation and Change 3:103132.
Rohdenburg, Günter. (1996). Cognitive complexity and increased grammatical explicitness in English. Cognitive Linguistics 7(2):149182.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2005). Animacy versus weight as determinants of grammatical variation in English. Language 81(3):613644.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2006). Descriptive genitives in English: A case study on constructional gradience. English Language and Linguistics 10(1):77118.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2007a). Exploring constructions on the web: A case study. In Hundt, M., Nesselhauf, N., & Biewer, C. (eds.), Corpus linguistics and the Web. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 167190.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2007b). Emerging variation: Determiner genitives and noun modifiers in English. English Language and Linguistics 11(1):143189.
Rosenbach, Anette. (2014). English genitive variation—The state of the art. English Language and Linguistics 18(2):215262.
Sankoff, David, & Labov, William. (1979). On the use of variable rules. Language in Society 8:189222.
Sankoff, David, & Rousseau, Pascale. (1989). Statistical evidence for rule ordering. Language Variation and Change 1(1):118.
Shih, Stephanie, Grafmiller, Jason, Futrell, Richard, & Bresnan, Joan. (2015). Rhythm's role in genitive construction choice in spoken English. In Vogel, R. & Vijver, R. (eds.), Rhythm in cognition and grammar. Berlin: De Gruyter. 207234.
Speelman, Dirk, Heylen, Kris, & Grondelaers, Stefan. (forthcoming). A bottom-up, data-driven operationalization of semantic classes and predictability in syntactic alternation research. In Grondelaers, S. & van Hout, R. (eds.), New ways of analyzing syntactic variation. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt. (2006). Morphosyntactic persistence in spoken English: A corpus study at the intersection of variationist sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and discourse analysis. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Tagliamonte, Sali, & Baayen, R. Harald. (2012). Models, forests, and trees of York English: Was/were variation as a case study for statistical practice. Language Variation and Change 24(2):135178.
Travis, Catherine E. (2007). Genre effects on subject expression in Spanish: Priming in narrative and conversation. Language Variation and Change 19(2):101135.
Wasow, Thomas. (2002). Postverbal behavior. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
Wolfram, Walt. (1974). The relationship of White Southern Speech to Vernacular Black English. Language 50(3):498527.
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.
Yáñez-Bouza, Nuria. (2011). ARCHER past and present (1990–2010). ICAME Journal 35:205236.
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 Byron, D., & Webber, B. (eds.), Proceedings of the 2004 ACL workshop on discourse annotation, Barcelona, July 2004. 118125.
Zuur, Alain F., Ieno, Elena N., Walker, Neil J., Saveliev, Anatoly A., & Smith, Graham M. (ed.). (2009). Mixed effects models and extensions in ecology with R. Statistics for Biology and Health. New York: Springer.
Zwicky, Arnold M. (1987). Suppressing the Zs. Journal of Linguistics 23:133148.
Recommend this journal

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

Language Variation and Change
  • ISSN: 0954-3945
  • EISSN: 1469-8021
  • URL: /core/journals/language-variation-and-change
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Szmrecsanyi supplementary material
Szmrecsanyi supplementary material 1

 Unknown (265 KB)
265 KB
Supplementary materials

Szmrecsanyi supplementary material
Szmrecsanyi supplementary material 3

 Word (46 KB)
46 KB
Supplementary materials

Szmrecsanyi supplementary material
Szmrecsanyi supplementary material 2

 Unknown (16 KB)
16 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 15
Total number of PDF views: 119 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 460 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.