LINGUIST List 27.2130

Mon May 09 2016

Review: Discourse; Ling Theories; Semantics; Syntax; Text/Corpus Ling: Flowerdew, Forest (2015)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 01-Jan-2016
From: Natalia Jacobsen <>
Subject: Signalling Nouns in English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: John Flowerdew
AUTHOR: Richard W. Forest
TITLE: Signalling Nouns in English
SUBTITLE: A Corpus-Based Discourse Approach
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Natalia Dolgova Jacobsen, George Washington University

Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


In their book “Signalling Nouns in English,” authors John Flowerdew and Richard W. Forest target the concept of signaling nouns, defined as “abstract nouns which are non-specific in their meaning when considered in isolation and which are made specific in their meaning by reference to their linguistic context” (p. 1). The eleven-chapter book represents a first-time book-length exploration of lexicogrammatical and discourse features of signaling nouns (hereafter referred to as SNs) in various academic sources (such as academic journal articles, textbooks, and lectures) across a number of disciplines. This book is relevant for researchers and advanced students of English syntax, semantics, corpus linguistics, and discourse analysis, as well as for a wide range of EAP professionals.

Chapter 1, entitled “Introduction”, introduces the basic notion of signaling nouns and illustrates it with typical examples. To illustrate, in the two instances below, words marked with single quotes - ‘problems’ and ‘fact’ - represent SNs, while the rest of each sentence represents their corresponding lexical realization/specification:

“1) T Cartels encounter two characteristic ‘problems’. The first is ensuring that members follow the behaviour that will maximize the industry’s joint profits. The second is preventing these profits from being eroded by the entry of new firms.

2) The n-type semiconductor behavior of the nanocrystalline oxide film is determined by the presence of Ti(III) species. This experimental ‘fact’ is opposite to the behavior observed by other authors in colloidal films.” (p. 1)

As can be inferred from these examples, the notion of signaling nouns can be applied to a wide variety of contexts in order to fit relatively specific discourse needs.

In Chapter 2, “Grammatical features of signalling nouns”, the authors identify common grammatical features used for categorizing SNs, such as:

co-occurrence with definite noun phrases and proximal demonstratives (‘this
and ‘these’) – as opposed to distal counterparts (‘that’ and ‘those’),
being head of noun phrases taking complement clauses, such as that-, wh-, to-, and non-finite clauses introduced by prepositions (p. 14)
being able to occur in subject positions with the auxiliary be and add a that clause (referred to as ‘container sentence’ frame in Vendler, 1967).

Subsections of this chapter discuss each of the characteristics in greater detail, using examples from corpus-based contexts. To conclude the chapter, the authors point out a number of grammatical patterns that had not been previously addressed in literature.

In Chapter 3, “Semantic features”, the authors cover the semantic features of signaling nouns, highlighting the facts that SNs often function as lexical superordinates drawn from the pool of abstract nouns. Also, the characteristics of SN usage mean that they have both a constant and a variable meaning. The chapter concludes with a proposed classification of SNs comprised of six semantic categories: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

In Chapter 4, “Discourse features”, discourse features, and in particular, the logico-semantic relations (projection and expansion, as defined by the systemic functional grammar framework), are addressed in full detail. The relationships conveyed by direct and indirect speech, reports/paraphrases, and representation of thoughts and feelings all fall under the ‘projection’ category. The ‘expansion’ “umbrella,” on the other hand, includes comparisons/contrasts, “as well as temporal, spatial, and causal relationships in discourse” (p. 36). Both expansion and projection have further subtypes, and the authors discuss each subtype as they are realized through SNs.

Chapter 5, “Criteria for determining what constitutes a signalling noun in this study”, provides the full motivation for the study’s key methodology. It begins with a statement that there is no universal test that identifies all and only SNs which could be administered automatically or without relying “on expert judgment of borderline cases” (p. 46). The entire chapter represents an argument for the key criterion in determining what constitutes a signaling noun – namely, encapsulation. It implies that SNs replace or refer to some prior excerpt of text and carry the same meaning from that point on. Encapsulation is anaphoric in a broad sense but does not necessarily have to be refer to previously mentioned ideas – it can highlight upcoming ideas or text as well. After identifying this broad criterion for SNs, the authors address more specific criteria that applied to their study in particular and explore subtypes of SNs (e.g., partitives, text nouns, etc.) they identified in the analyzed corpus.

Chapter 6, “Corpus, methodology, annotation system, and reporting of the data”, is dedicated to the description of corpus, methodology, annotation system, and data reporting for the study. The corpus used for the study comprised over 600,000 words coming from both the natural and social sciences, covering five disciplines each. The corpus included a variety of genres such as lectures, textbook chapters, and journal articles produced in English (not accounting for any specific regional varieties). This chapter provides a detailed description of how all sources contributing to the corpus were selected and compiled as well as how the data were tagged and annotated. In order to account for the data in the most precise manner possible, trained raters, as well as automated methods/systems, were involved in the coding/tagging procedures.

Chapter 7, “Set of examples”, continues the topic of tagging, listing detailed examples for each of the discourse and syntactic patterns of SN tags in the corpus. The tags are presented in the order of frequency of occurrence in the corpus, beginning from about 6,000 and ending with a singular occurrence per million words.

Chapters 8 through 10 present the study’s quantitative findings. Chapter 8, “Overview of signalling noun distributions in the corpus”, provides a discussion of key takeaways from the previous chapter, focusing on a broad overview of SNs distribution in the corpus. Beyond the examples included in Chapter 7, detailed frequency lists of SNs are added in the appendix and referred to throughout Chapter 8. The total number of SN types in the corpus is 845, which is larger than the number identified in previous literature (Schmid 2000), suggesting that SNs are not a closed class and indeed a crucial category in academic language discourse. This chapter proceeds with examining the most frequent SNs in the corpus, beginning from listing the top 50 (Table 8-1 on pp. 86-87) and then those occurring more than 100 times in the corpus and ranked according to standard deviation (Table 8-2 on p. 90). The authors also present the distribution of SNs across natural and social sciences as well as across the three genres (journal articles, textbook chapters, and lectures). Detailed tables accompany the commentary throughout the chapter.

Chapter 9, “Overview of semantic categories”, continues the analysis of findings, focusing on semantic categories of SNs. The bulk of the chapter focuses on answering six questions, which address the relative frequency of SNs across 1) the corpus at large; 2) major divisions of natural and social sciences; 3) specific disciplines in natural and social sciences; 4) genre overall; 5) genres in natural and social sciences; and 6) genres in specific disciplines within the natural and social sciences. The reporting of answers is accompanied by tables presenting the corresponding summaries on the most salient SNs and the relevant statistical frequency information. The top four SNs (‘fact’, ‘idea’, ‘circumstance’, and ‘locution’) form one group of more frequent categories, while the bottom categories (‘act’ and ‘modal fact’) form another group. Furthermore, the authors conclude that that “there is a good degree of consistency in the frequency of semantic categories across the two major parameters of the corpus: discipline and genre” (p. 159).

Chapter 10, “Overview of lexicogrammatical and discourse pattern frequencies”, continues with a discussion of lexico-grammatical and discourse pattern distributions associated with SNs. In addition to reporting overall frequencies of patterns in the corpus, the authors also report how SNs are patterned across academic disciplines and genres. Similar to previous chapters, key points are supported by extensive data reported through multiple tables.

Chapter 11, entitled “Conclusion”, provides a conclusion for the whole book; it serves as a ‘discussion’ space, where key findings are summarized, and limitations as well as directions for future research are addressed. The authors provide a critical overview of the main results of their study, highlighting the most salient and important points, and then conclude with limitations and future research. The final subsection of the chapter concerns applications to pedagogy. The authors stipulate that the findings should be particularly relevant for the EAP and ESP professionals. In particular, a wide range of lists included in chapters and appendices of the book could serve as a starting point for consciousness-raising activities addressing the use of SNs in specific disciplines and genres. However, additional contextual information and students’ background knowledge would need to be involved in such activities in order to prevent them from being focused on rote learning. The authors suggest that the eventual application of the findings from their book should serve as basis for pedagogical grammar centered on SNs and outline a couple of pedagogical approaches (Francis, 1988; Flowerdew, 2003) to use as a basis for further instructional activities.

The book concludes with almost a hundred pages of appendices, a reference list, and a subject index.


Without a doubt, the authors achieve the goal they stipulated for themselves in the first chapter. The analysis is thorough, informed by naturally-occurring discourse patterns, and a hundred percent data-driven. The presentation of findings is highly coherent, with one topic stemming from the other and transitions always justified and properly supported. The book fits with the increasingly popularizing orientation toward data-driven EAP research. The tables and appendices provide a true ‘goldmine’ that could be used to improve one’s understanding of how a given genre or discipline-specific language may structured in terms of SNs. In short, the book represents a unique contribution to the field in the sense that no other studies of the same extent had been done in the past, and the findings allow us to view and understand SNs in a completely new light.

For the sake of complete objectivity, though, two points of criticism should be raised. First of all, in order to be able to benefit from the findings presented in this book, readers need to have a significant prior understanding of how corpora work, and how to utilize the findings from them. In other words, the general narrative and the level of detail presented in the book assumes a relatively high degree of prior knowledge, which is why the material might be somewhat challenging for individuals unfamiliar with corpus research. That said, the authors provide sufficient references to pre-existing classifications, theories, and concepts that readers might need to familiarize themselves with before delving into the authors’ analysis.

The second implication has to do with the intended audience of the book. The authors suggest the book might of particular interest to professionals in the English for Academic or Specific Purposes (EAP/ESP) areas. However, the only part of the book where pedagogical implications are discussed explicitly is in one subsection of the concluding chapter. Furthermore, in this part, the authors mention some common ways corpus-based activities were used for language teaching in the past. Although they provide some references, they do not sufficiently explain the whole procedure. Perhaps, the next edition of this book could include an overview of more detailed lesson plans and/or a more extensive discussion of pedagogical applications behind the study’s findings at the very least.

To sum up, this book would be of particular value for researchers who are also actively involved in the EAP/ESP classroom and have the theoretical knowledge to transfer the book’s findings into pedagogical materials. It would be relatively less helpful for EAP practitioners who are just beginning to familiarize themselves with corpus research and/or might be not be fully familiar with key tenets of quantitative discourse/corpus analysis.


Flowerdew, John. 2003. Signalling nouns in discourse. English for Specific Purposes 22. 329-46

Francis, Gill. 1988. ‘The Teaching techniques of lexical cohesion in an ESL setting’, in Verner Bickley (ed.) Language in a bilingual or multilingual setting. Hong Kong: Institute of Language in Education. 325-38.

Schmid, Hans-Jorg. 2000. English abstract nouns as conceptual shells: From corpora to cognition. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Vendler, Zeno. 1967. Linguistics in philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press


Natalia Dolgova Jacobsen is Teaching Assistant Professor of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She earned her PhD in Applied Linguistics at Georgetown University. Her research interests include applied cognitive and corpus linguistics, task-based language teaching, second language writing, and English for Academic and Specific Purposes.

Page Updated: 09-May-2016