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Review of  Information Status and Noncanonical Word Order In English

Reviewer: David Umbach
Book Title: Information Status and Noncanonical Word Order In English
Book Author: Betty J. Birner Gregory Ward
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 10.465

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Betty J. Birner and Gregory Ward, (1998) Information Status and
Noncanonical Word Order in English. John Benjamins Publishing,
Amsterdam/Philadelphia. 314 pages, including index and
bibliography. $69.00, U.S.

Reviewed by David B. Umbach, Drake University.

This book attempts to provide a generalized account of the pragmatic
and functional constraints on the distribution of certain
noncanonical-word-order constructions. These constructions are
defined and classified in terms of the positioning of the
noncanonically ordered constituent(s), and grouped into three broad
classes of constructions, each with a number of formally and/or
functionally distinct sub-types:

Preposing constructions: "those in which some argument of the verb
appears to the left of its canonical position, typically but not
always sentence-initially, leaving its canonical position empty"(p.
2-3). This category includes focus preposing and topicalization.

Postposing constructions: "those in which some argument of the verb
appears to the right of its canonical position , typically but not
always sentence-finally, leaving its canonical position either empty
or else occupied by an expletive element (p. 3). This category
includes existential and presentation "there" constructions.
Argument-reversing constructions: those in which the logical
subject appears in postverbal position while some canonically
postverbal argument of the verb appears in preverbal position (p.
3). This category includes inversion and by-phrase passives.

It is important to note that under these definitions, preposing
excludes left-dislocation and postposing excludes right-dislocation,
on formal grounds (the presence in both dislocation types of a
pronoun in the canonical position of the dislocated constituent). One important feature of this book's analysis is the demonstration
that this formal difference corresponds to a functional difference;
the information status of the noncanonically positioned constituent
in dislocation is not the same as the information status of the
corresponding constituent in a superficially similar pre- or
The account of these constructions that is offered here is framed
primarily in terms of the Given/New distinction. The claim is that
the felicity or infelicity of these constructions in discourse is
dependent upon the information status of the noncanonically ordered
constituent(s); in general, preposed constituents must be more
given and postposed constituents must be more new. In and of
itself, this is not a new or startling claim. The value of this
account lies in the detail of its treatment of the varying degrees
and types of givenness and newness relevant to these constructions.

In order to adequately account for these constructions, new
information must be divided into hearer-new and discourse-new,
and given information must be classified in terms of partially
ordered set relationships and open propositions. With these
additional distinctions in place, the authors are able to formulate
sets of constraints on these constructions that achieve two things:
first, they consistently account for the felicity or infelicity of
individual examples; and second, they clearly demonstrate that each
of these formally different constructions responds to a different
set of functional constraints, with the different sets of constraints interacting to produce different sets of possible discourse functions. In other words, the account produces a strong argument for a broad correlation between construction type and function type (p. 284).

This book represents a useful and insightful contribution to
research on the relationship between linguistic form and function. The analyses are detailed, and based on a substantial corpus of
naturally-occurring linguistic data (for instance, 1778 tokens of
inversion). All claims and arguments are well supported with
examples, and most of the examples used in the book are taken
directly from the corpus; infelicitous examples are, of course,
constructed, but wherever possible are based on examples from the
corpus, as are a limited number of felicitous examples of a type
predicted by the analysis but (accidently) absent from the corpus. The constraints that are posited carefully formulated, and several
important phenomena (including some apparent counterexamples) are
shown to be the result of complex interactions between constraints,
rather than being separate items requiring additional constraints. The account thus avoids unnecessary complexity, while still
providing coverage of the data. The theoretical discussion makes very clear the complex ancestry and
evolution of the ideas being drawn upon. The authors cannot and do
not claim to be entering unexplored territory, in analyzing these
constructions, but they are very careful to critically but fairly
discuss a wide range of previous analyses and theories. At no point
should a reader feel that the authors have made any arbitrary or
uncritical decisions about whose prior work to adopt and whose to
adapt (no prior work seems to have been completely discarded).
On a more mundane level, the organization of the book is also quite
logical and accessible. The book is divided into six chapters. The
first introduces the topic, defines the important terms, summarizes
the claims to be supported in the book, and lays out the
theoretical, empirical and notational background for everything that
The second, third and fourth chapters provide detailed analyses of
preposing, postposing and argument reversal, respectively. The
fifth chapter discusses generalizations that can be made across
these three categories of constructions, and the sixth discusses
crosslinguistic extensions and theoretical implications of the
analyses and generalizations. Throughout, the ordering and
presentation of claims, arguments and examples is clear and lucid.

Incidently, the book also serves as a fine example of the benefits
of a long-standing collaborative relationship; the bibliography
cites no fewer than nine previous publications by Birner and Ward
(or Ward and Birner), including both conference papers and journal
articles, beginning in 1989.

David B. Umbach teaches linguistics in the English Department at
Drake University. His research interests lie primarily in the
connections between grammatical forms and pragmatic and
sociolinguistic factors in discourse.