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Academic Paper


Title: A Hard-to-evaluate Claim: Exploring the form and function of an NP premodifier
Author: Wim van der Wurff
Email: click here to access email
Homepage: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/elll/people/profile/w.a.m.van-der-wurff
Institution: University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Author: Alex Ho-Cheong Leung
Email: click here to access email
Homepage: http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/humanities/linguistics/linguisticsstaff/alexleung1/
Institution: Northumbria University
Linguistic Field: Historical Linguistics
Abstract: It has been noted (e.g. Biber and Clark 2002; Biber 2003; Mair and Leech 2006) that contemporary English has seen an increase in the use of heavily premodified NPs:

(1) a small, quaint yesterday thing
(2) an even-tempered, down-to-earth Chicago native
(3) Sainsbury's impressive new greener-than-thou waste management initiative

This phenomenon has been found to be particularly prominent in newspaper language. It has been attributed to a desire for (or need of) verbal economy, where a great deal of information has to be presented as compactly as possible. As shown in (1)-(3), the elements used for this include nouns, adjectives, adverbs, participles and PPs.

Another possible NP premodifier is the combination of an easy-adjective with a to-infinitive, as in (4).

(4) an easy-to-understand book; a hard to refute argument; difficult-to-reach places

The attributive use of such sequences in contemporary English – which is unattested in earlier stages of the language (van der Wurff and Leung 2008) – has so far received little attention. Their syntactic structure is discussed in Nanni (1980), who proposes that such premodifiers are complex adjectives. This is also suggested by Mair (1987), who in addition offers some brief remarks on their stylistic distribution.

It might be thought that the emergence and current use of this adj-to-infin premodifier is due to the same functional causes as the use of other premodifiers in the NP. However, for each of the examples in (4) there is a – long-established – alternative construction which is equally economical in terms of number of words:

(5) an easy book to understand; a hard argument to refute; difficult places to reach

The increased use of the construction in (4) therefore casts doubt on the usual explanation for the current prominence of data as in (1)-(3): if there is some factor other than verbal economy that promotes the use of (4), then perhaps that same factor is also responsible for the increased use of other premodifiers, as in (1)-(3).

In our paper, we shall present corpus data for the two constructions in (4) and (5) and use them to establish:

1. their relative frequencies and any recent changes in them;
2. the co-occurrence patterns of these two constructions and other premodifiers in the NP;
3. whether the two constructions can be considered fully equivalent and therefore interchangeable or whether there is some grammatical or functional difference between them;
4. and, on the basis of these, whether the data support the verbal-economy explanation for increased use of heavy premodification inside the NP.
Type: Individual Paper
Status: Completed
Venue: Brunei Gallery, London, U.K.
Publication Info: Paper at The Third International Conference on the Linguistics of Contemporary English (ICLCE3)


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