LINGUIST List 30.4515

Wed Nov 27 2019

Review: English; Applied Linguistics; Discourse Analysis; Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics; Text/Corpus Linguistics: Biber, Gray (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 22-Sep-2019
From: Jessie Sams <>
Subject: Grammatical Complexity in Academic English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Douglas Biber
AUTHOR: Bethany Gray
TITLE: Grammatical Complexity in Academic English
SUBTITLE: Linguistic Change in Writing
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Jessie Sams, Stephen F. Austin State University


The goals of the book are to demonstrate that “[t]here are different types of grammatical complexity” (4) and academic writing does not represent one cohesive register but rather represents diverse registers that have different expectations and, thus, exhibit different linguistic features. Specifically, academic scientific writing differs from humanities writing in its goals and discourse features. Differentiating science writing from humanities writing, Biber and Gray demonstrate that grammatical complexity in scientific writing “is associated with structural compression, not structural elaboration,” and those features have dramatically shifted over the last few centuries (4). They further argue that “academic science writing has been the locus of some of the most dramatic grammatical changes that have occurred in English over the past three centuries” (5). These goals drive the content and data provided throughout the rest of the book.

Chapter 1 “Academic writing: Challenging the stereotypes” provides a general introduction to the book and opens with common stereotypes of academic writing, such as the general belief that “it is deliberately complex, and more concerned with impressing readers than communicating ideas—all making it needlessly difficult to understand” (1). Biber and Gray challenge the assumptions that academic writing represents one style of writing that relies on “complex and elaborated grammar” that is “maximally explicit in meaning” and “conservative and resistant to change” (7). Furthermore, they challenge the theoretical notions that grammatical complexity can only be achieved through structural elaboration and that “grammatical changes are initiated in speech” (7). The final sections of the chapter define and exemplify the types of grammatical changes that occur in language and demonstrate that “most grammatical change in English over the past 300 years has been quantitative rather than categorical,” which is “especially prevalent in academic writing” (32), and recent grammatical shifts in English are best described by analyzing frequency of particular features or sets of co-occurring features. Biber and Gray argue that grammatical changes found in academic writing—specifically academic science writing—cannot be explained by the common assumption that change occurs first in speech and later in written form.

Chapter 2 “Using corpora to analyze grammatical change” focuses on methodology, providing a justification for using corpora to study shifts in grammatical features and a description of the particular corpora used for the analyses presented throughout the rest of the book. The chapter opens with a general discussion of ways corpus research can benefit studies of linguistic features and an argument for using a blended approach of quantitative and qualitative analyses when researching with corpora. Biber and Gray state that quantitative analyses provide the necessary evidence for shifts in linguistic features but qualitative analyses allow the researcher to “elaborate upon, and attempt to explain, the functional motivations for such quantitative trends” (49). Biber and Gray use existing historical corpora to select randomly select sources to fit into four major categories of academic writing: specialist science, specialist social science, specialist humanities, and non-specialist or multi-disciplinary science. Because specialist writing was not prevalent until the 20th century, most of the specialist texts belong to more current sources while the non-specialist texts date back to the early 18th century. Their resulting corpus includes over 7 million words. Along with discussing an overview of their corpus, Biber and Gray focus on their methods for computing quantitative results, stating that “[r]ates of occurrence were computed for each individual text” (59). This strategy differs from other quantitative approaches that compute results for a given feature per thousand or million words in the corpus; because Biber and Gray specifically want to compare texts belonging to different registers, though, their analysis relying on instances per text allows them to compute a “genuine mean score for each register” and “a standard deviation [that measured] the extent to which linguistic scores vary across texts within a register” (59). The end of this chapter is devoted to the specific linguistic features they searched for within the corpus, including features connected with colloquial language (e.g., contractions, progressive aspect, and semi-modals) and grammatical complexity (e.g., finite dependent clauses and dependent phrases).

In Chapter 3 “Phrasal versus clausal discourse styles: A synchronic grammatical description of academic writing contrasted with other registers,” Biber and Gray’s opening discussion highlights current linguistic differences among registers, specifically connecting those differences to the situational parameters of audience and purpose. The rest of the chapter focuses on providing “a relatively comprehensive linguistic description of academic writing in the late twentieth century” (72). In their discussions on linguistic features, they demonstrate that academic writing tends to favor a “dense use of phrasal modifiers” (100), such as post-modifying preposition phrases, favoring phrasal modifiers over finite dependent clauses, which tend to be more prevalent in conversation. They further argue “there is no general academic style” (104) because each text is sensitive to the situational parameters of intended audience and purpose. Finally, they demonstrate that phrasal modifiers are most prevalent in specialist science writing, and they argue that such modifiers “can be associated with a loss of explicitness” because they are “more compressed,” resulting in “less overt expression of the meaning relationships among constituents” (121). After establishing the modern uses of phrasal modifiers in academic writing, Biber and Gray turn to describing its increase in use over time in the next chapter.

Chapter 4 “The historical evolution of phrasal discourse styles in academic writing” opens with examples to demonstrate the “extensive register diversification” in academic writing in the past 300 years, connecting those changes to two major influences on academic writing: “the increasing preference for colloquial forms in writing (‘popularization’), and the need to efficiently convey a great deal of information (‘economy’)” (128). Biber and Gray further describe these influences, saying that, due to “mass literacy and near-universal education, … written texts are required for an increasingly wide audience,” yet at the same time, “academic sub-disciplines have proliferated and become increasingly specialized in topic, accessible only to restricted readerships” (129). They argue that one reason for that shift is the “‘information explosion’ and the need to present more information in an efficient and concise way” (129). They connect these functional shifts to the increase of certain colloquial features, such as progressives and semi-modals, and the increase of phrasal modification, which reduces clarity and explicitness for non-specialized readers. Results from their corpus further demonstrate that the shift to increased phrasal modification originated in academic writing, contrasting the popular belief that changes in language begin in speech and migrate to written registers.

Having established increased phrasal modification as a feature of academic writing, specifically in specialist science writing, Biber and Gray turn to describing the functional uses of phrasal modification in Chapter 5 “The functional extension of phrasal grammatical features in academic writing.” This chapter is split into two separate investigations: phrasal pre-modification of head nouns through the use of attributive nouns and phrasal post-modification of head nouns, focusing on preposition phrases and appositional noun phrases. Throughout the first half of the chapter, Biber and Gray rely on textual examples to demonstrate extensions in the range and function of pre-modifying nouns. For instance, attributive nouns offer an alternative to a genitive construction (e.g., “the Communist Party chief” versus “the Communist’s Party chief” or “the chief of the Communist Party” (171)); the “semantic classes of the nouns used as pre-modifiers” have been extended over the last three centuries (174), allowing more relationships among the attributive noun and head noun, including intangible relationships, such as “currency troubles” or “heat apoplexy” (175); and current texts feature strings of pre-modifying nouns, such as “artery blood flow” and “Pearson correlation coefficients” (177). In the final half of the chapter, Biber and Gray argue that “[a]cademic research writing often incorporates sequences of [post-modifying phrases] … creating dense information structures with few verbs” (192). Using textual examples, they demonstrate that the types of prepositions allowed to introduce post-modifying phrases have increased in the past three centuries, which has resulted in an extension of the types of semantic relationships possible between the head noun and its post-modifying phrase. They show that the same extension has occurred for appositive noun phrases, allowing more complex relationships than “a simple co-referential relationship” (206). They connect these shifts to an “underlying functional motivation,” arguing that “the drive towards economy of expression [resulted] in structural compression to convey the maximum amount of information in the fewest words possible” (207).

Chapter 6 “The loss of explicitness in academic research writing” focuses on this compression of meaning described in Chapter 5. Biber and Gray argue that while “written academic texts are more cognitively demanding and complex than most conversational or popular written texts” (219), their complexity is not due to embedded dependent clauses that are explicit in meaning. Rather, “written academic texts systematically prefer compressed structural variants, resulting in a dense use of grammatical structures that are inexplicit in meaning on a scale that has not been generally appreciated” (219). This chapter is devoted to examples of compressed phrasal modifiers in written texts to demonstrate their potential ambiguities of meaning.

Finally, Chapter 7 “Conclusion” returns to the stereotypes of academic writing outlined in Chapter 1, connecting information provided throughout the book to demonstrate that “grammatical complexity is not a single unified construct” (246), aspects of language change can—and did—originate in written texts, and academic writing is not as resistant to change or explicit as many believe. This brief chapter ends with the authors’ larger goal for the book: “It is our hope that the volume will serve as a starting point … for future research by scholars coming from a range of perspectives” (256).


The intended audience includes scholars who are familiar with grammatical description of language but who may not be convinced of the need for corpora work for investigating grammatical structures or the importance of studying written texts for language features. Specifically, Biber and Gray seem to be targeting scholars who approach academic writing with these stereotypical assumptions: “1. all kinds of academic prose are essentially the same; 2. academic prose employs complex and elaborated grammar; 3. academic prose is maximally explicit in meaning; 4. academic prose is conservative and resistant to linguistic change” (7).

Furthermore, their intended readership may hold the following two theoretical assumptions about language change: “1. grammatical complexity is equivalent to structural elaboration, realized especially through the increased use of dependent clauses; 2. grammatical changes are initiated in speech; grammatical innovations do not occur in writing” (7). Because their intended readers may approach language with these assumptions, Biber and Gray challenge each assumption in turn and use careful repetition of data to demonstrate how each of these stereotypes is based in inaccurate assumptions. Their hope is that readers will be willing to take a new approach to studying language, and they provide enough quantitative evidence with detailed qualitative descriptions that even the most doubting readers may experience a shift in their ideas or assumptions about academic language and language change.

The best feature of this book is the inclusion of data viewed from multiple perspectives, showing the thoughtfulness with which Biber and Gray examined their corpora. For example, rather than only presenting quantitative results showing an increased use of appositive noun phrases, they demonstrate the expanded types of relationships offered by appositive noun phrases and connected those expanding relationships to situational parameters and communicative functions. For every increase of a feature they identify, they strive to connect that increase to a decrease of another feature, such as connecting the downward trend of genitive structures to the upward trend of nominal pre-modifiers. Furthermore, every major finding is supported in multiple methods, including textual examples, tables providing statistical analyses, and charts demonstrating the raw difference among quantifiable instances of particular features.

The drawback of the information redundancy is that the book does not read well from beginning to end, especially for scholars who do not approach written language with the assumptions outlined in Chapter 1. While the redundancy helps to underscore Biber and Gray’s goals throughout the text, portions overlap so much that the book becomes difficult to read. For instance, the latter half of Chapter 5 and the content of Chapter 6 provide the same type of information, so the material could have been condensed into a single chapter. A benefit of the redundancy, though, is that readers can select the sections necessary to their research or pertinent to their own interests without needing to read the surrounding material for full context.

This book is most useful for linguists or academic scholars interested in language change, textual features (especially as those features intersect with communicative or social functions), and/or corpus-based research.


Jessie Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her primary research interests include the interface of syntax and semantics, especially the intersection of the two within written English quotatives; English grammar; history of the English language and English etymology; and constructed languages.

Page Updated: 27-Nov-2019