LINGUIST List 12.698

Tue Mar 13 2001

Review: Claridge, Multi-word Verbs in EMod English

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  • Matthew Walenski, Claridge, Multi-word verbs in Early Modern English

    Message 1: Claridge, Multi-word verbs in Early Modern English

    Date: Tue, 13 Mar 2001 20:48:16 -0700
    From: Matthew Walenski <>
    Subject: Claridge, Multi-word verbs in Early Modern English

    Claridge, Claudia, (2000) Multi-word Verbs in Early Modern English: A Corpus-based Study, Rodopi, Amsterdam. 317pp.

    Matthew Walenski, Department of Neuroscience and Linguistics, Georgetown University.

    Claridge offers a description of multi-word verbs in English, based on the Lampeter corpus of 17th - 18th century written English, specifically from the period 1640 - 1740. Multi-word verbs are defined as analytic constructions that "nevertheless represent a semantic unity that is characteristic of a single word or lexical unit (p.26)." Chapter 2 provides a detailed description of the Lampeter corpus, and a discussion of the problems inherent in corpus-based research. The focus of chapters 3 and 4 is to provide a system of classification for multi- word verbs and define membership within each class. She divides multi-word verbs into five categories: phrasal verbs (e.g., find out), prepositional verbs (e.g., depend on), phrasal-prepositional verbs (e.g., break in on), verb-adjective combinations (e.g., put straight), and verbo-nominal combinations (e.g., take a walk), further divided into three types. Chapter 5 examines the history of these types of multi-word verbs from Old English through to Modern English. Chapters 6 and 7 describe the particular multi- word verbs found in the Lampeter corpus, and attempt to describe the patterns found among them. Chapter 6 treats the data synchronically, while chapter 7 looks at diachronic developments during the 100 year period covered by the corpus. Chapter 8 is a review of contemporary grammatical accounts to ascertain whether grammarians (prescriptive and no-so-prescriptive) were aware that multi-word verbs existed in the language, and if so, what their attitude was towards these forms. Chapter 9 then attempts to describe factors that influence language choice. Given an option between a multi-word verb and a simplex verb (e.g., 'take a walk to the store' vs. 'walk to the store'), which would a speaker choose, and why? At the end of the book is an appendix that lists all the multi-word verbs Claridge finds in the Lampeter corpus, according to her system of classification.

    First let me emphasize, as Claridge herself states, that the work does not offer a theoretical account or analysis of multi-word verbs, it is intended to be purely data oriented. However, adding a theoretical perspective would perhaps have addressed the book's most serious problem: it comes across as subjective, unfocussed, and inexplicit. As a result, she failed to convince me that the data she presents reflects anything real about this period of English.

    The entire book is very well sourced, and the amount of literature reviewed seems quite comprehensive, though with a couple of notable exceptions. Two theoretical accounts of these types of predicate in the literature are Ackerman and Webelhuth (1998) and Di Sciullo and Williams (1987), though this is certainly not intended to be a comprehensive list. Ackerman and Webelhuth (1998) provide an account which is explicitly intended for predicates that may not be simplex forms, and as such is perfectly suited for the data Claridge presents. Di Sciullo and Williams (1987) provide an explicit definition of these types of (multi-word) objects, though their terminology differs slightly. However, no reference is made to these works or to any of their references (despite many references more recent than 1998). While this is an unfortunate oversight, it would be unfair not to mention that there is little overlap in the references in either direction, so perhaps this is less a fault of Claridge and more an indication of a general rift between different schools of linguistics.

    Chapter 2 is a pleasure to read, and is a well organized and well presented summary of the Lampeter corpus and the particular advantages it offers. Additionally, Claridge includes a lot of very interesting historical and social commentary on the way in which written information was used at the time of the writings in the corpus. Chapter 8 recaptures this same interesting spirit, and is a wonderful slice of grammatical history - one rarely has a chance to read such a concise, organized presentation of very interesting material. Chapter 5 was also interesting, but perhaps not convincing, for reasons to do with her classification system (see comments below).

    However, the rest of the book suffers greatly. First, there is no explicit definition of the data she is treating: "The notion of 'word' will throughout the study be used in an everyday, quasi pretheoretical way as a more theoretical definition is not necessary for the problem at hand (p26)." Given that this is a book about (multi-) words, one would think that a precise definition of 'word' would be exactly what was necessary. Here certainly, the theoretical approaches mentioned above (notably Di Sciullo and Williams) could have been used to great advantage.

    The rest of chapter 3, which attempts to define a system of classification of these multi-word verbs, appears very subjective. At the end of the chapter, she states: "we all know in some way what e.g., a phrasal verb is, but a full and theoretically adequate proof of this intuitive knowledge seems impossible. If in doubt, I will therefore trust my intuitions more than I will trust any kind of test (p41)." While Chapter 4 does attempt to provide objective tests to classify predicates, they are undermined at every turn by her failure to rely on their objective application.

    An additional problem is that the literature review, while fairly comprehensive (barring omissions mentioned above) is organized in such a way that it is impossible to evaluate why she rejects some work and not others, or to know how the system she proposes is superior to these prior works, if indeed it is so. In fact, I was left with the impression that she had tried to make a fresh start by more or less randomly sampling from prior work in this area, taking some ideas and not others for reasons that were not explicitly or objectively clear. Unfortunately I was not convinced that this was necessary, nor was I convinced that the system she proposes is better than those that came before.

    To give an example of one of her dismissals: "At the beginning of this section, I said that [verb-adjective combinations do] not pattern nicely. But Bolinger ... and Konig ... advocate a possible subdivision into three groups... While this classification works with many, perhaps even the majority of verb-adjective combinations, there are cases which are not covered by it... (p69)."

    While the concept of the data that she presents and advocates does have its appeal, her failure to convince the reader that she has any objective tests for the phenomena she is studying, and her failure to convince the reader that she has objectively applied even the tests she has, raise serious doubts about the validity of her classification (despite its nice organization in the appendices). Unfortunately, as this serves as the basis for the remainder of the study (the corpus investigation), the results of that investigation are cast into doubt as well.

    Chapters 6 and 7 constitute her own research with the Lampeter corpus. The information she presents is somewhat interesting, but any sort of explicit motivation for the measurements she makes would be helpful, as there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the data. Second, her use of statistics is chapter 7 is somewhat odd. She presents the results of several (not clearly motivated) statistical comparisons (chapter 8 does finally provide motivation for one of her comparisons, to be fair), decides "statistical significance is not everything" (p.177) and proceeds to interpret the data as if the statistical tests had never been done in the first place. This puts the reader in a tough spot: Does one take the statistics at face value, and ignore the conclusions she draws? Or does one ignore the statistics, as she does, and accept her conclusions? Why were these tests performed, if they have nothing to offer? Moreover, how is the data affected by the subjectivity of her classifications?

    Here again is where some theory would be useful, if only to provide some explicit reason (other than intuition) to expect a pattern. However, Claridge states: "This sequence is not surprising, in fact, it is exactly what I would have expected intuitively ... an intuition which, unfortunately, cannot at the moment be verified by empirical studies... (p175)" However, she does not succeed in conveying these intuitions to her audience, leaving us very little to go on.

    The goal of chapter 9 is to describe what factors would cause an author to use a multi-word verb over a simplex equivalent. In other words, to make her case she needs to get inside the heads of authors who have been dead for three hundred years. This is very ambitious, and while she should perhaps be commended for the attempt, it should not come as a surprise that she makes little progress. While the introduction to the chapter warns us of its speculative nature, her speculation in many places goes beyond what could fairly be considered speculation. To give one example, when speaking of a metaphoric usage of the verb 'eat,' in the sense of "to destroy as a parasite or corrosive" (p235n10) she says, "For people living in early modern times, witnessing such processes would have been a rather common experience, i.e. the picture was more accessible to them than it is to us (ibid.)" Certainly this is speculative, but inasmuch as it is used to support an argument (even a speculative one), how could such a claim possibly be substantiated?

    To summarize, I would recommend this book in two instances. First, to someone interested in the Lampeter corpus, Chapter 2 would be a very helpful and useful introduction. Second, to someone deeply committed to doing research into multi-word verbs, her findings and methods may be relevant, but should be taken with a grain of salt.


    Ackerman, F., and Webelhuth, G. (1998) A Theory of Predicates. CSLI, Stanford.

    Di Sciullo, A.M., and Williams, E. (1987) On the Definition of Word. MIT Press, Cambridge.

    My research interests include sentence processing (psycho- and neuro-linguistics), syntax, phonetics, historical linguistics, and writing systems. I am currently a post-doc at Georgetown, working on memory and language.