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Review of  Syntactic Variation and Genre

Reviewer: Sixta D. Quaßdorf
Book Title: Syntactic Variation and Genre
Book Author: Heidrun Dorgeloh Anja Wanner
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.3028

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EDITORS: Dorgeloh, Heidrun and Anja Wanner
TITLE: Syntactic Variation and Genre
SERIES TITLE: Topics in English Linguistics [TiEL] 70
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2010

Sixta Quassdorf, Department of English, University of Basel, Switzerland


Dorgeloh & Wanner's collection of papers derives from a workshop held at the
annual meeting of the German Linguistic Society in 2007. Besides a comprehensive
introduction by the editors, it contains 12 methodologically variegated papers
on the interrelationship between syntactic phenomena and genre. It is the credo
of the editors that methodological variety is essential to capture fluid
concepts such as genre. Genre is theoretically conceived of as ''patterned
practice'' of ''social action'' on a ''low level of generality'' (p. 10). However,
the volume exemplifies that research in practice may range from rather
coarse-grained to very fine-grained concepts. Accordingly, the collection seen
in its entirety explores the limits of generality at both sides.

The introduction provides an overview of the state of the art and discusses
definitions of syntactic variation and genre from the angle of various
linguistic strands. A usage-based, functional approach and the
descriptive-interpretative paradigm are favoured. Syntactic variation is
understood to be a question of choices in specific contexts rather than a
reservoir of two or more ontologically existent variants within the linguistic
system. Genre variation, in turn, is seen in relation to communicative needs: as
''patterned action'' they are able to provide contextual clues helping to ease
language production and interpretation. A short summary of the individual papers
rounds the introduction off.

The papers are grouped in two parts: The first part covers six papers focusing
on genre issues and their relationship to syntactic phenomena, while the
articles in part two concentrate on syntactic variation, which is discussed in
view of its occurrences in specific genres.

The first paper ''Genre as difference: The sociality of linguistic variation'' by
Janet Giltrow, starts with an historical overview of genre and syntax in
linguistic theory. The new-rhetorical notion of genre as ''social action'' (Miller
1984), which places genre at the level of contextually-bound communicative
situations, clashes with the aim of traditional syntactic theory for utmost
abstraction. Giltrow's empirical study on deontic modality in different types of
academic papers then shows that the interpretation of deontic structures is
context-sensitive: academic papers do not normally use deontic constructions as
a directive, but as a qualitative comment on the research discussed. She
suggests that as soon as form is related to function, genre as a low-level
category is ''a useful partner'' for studies in linguistic variation (p. 47).
Besides her comprehensive theoretical overview and her revealing empirical study
(although one might argue that she relates a semantic rather than a syntactic
phenomenon to contextual effects), her contribution is also a thought-provoking
study in view of the transition between what Grice would call ''occasional'' and
''timeless'' meaning (cf. Grice 1957:379 f.). The ''timeless'' (i.e.
decontextualised) directive meaning of deontic structures changes to specific
qualitative comments on the ''occasion'' of different types of academic papers;
yet within that genre, the qualitative meaning has become almost ''timeless,''
that is conventionalised.

Tuija Virtanen approaches genre from a very analytical angle in ''Variation
across texts and discourses: Theoretical and methodological perspectives on text
type and genre.'' Based on her differentiation between text and discourse types
(cf. Virtanen 1992) - that is, between formal and functional aspects of texts
such as narrative strategies (form) in expository texts (function) - she now
takes a step further and relates text type to genre. A sample analysis of
different tokens of the genre ''encyclopaedic article'' shows that a) genre can be
realised by different text types, b) people can differentiate between genres
well, but are not necessarily aware of text/discourse type differentiations and
c) genre and text/discourse types are therefore different categories. These have
to be differentiated to disclose the various factors determining the
text-context interface. Even though her model is probably not yet exhaustive,
Virtanen's account without a doubt sensitises the researcher for necessary
discriminations and shows a suitable path of research to follow.

Maurizio Gotti's ''A new genre for a specialized community: The rise of the
experimental essay'' continues with the subject of ''genre emergence'' in an
historical setting: the experimental essay in the late 17th century in England.
Although the birth of this genre can mainly be attributed to a specific
historical figure, Robert Boyle, Gotti explains its success with the new
requirements of the discourse community of empirical scientists: instead of
general philosophical expositions, the new experimental paradigm depends on
sharing data that has to be described rather than argued about. Moreover, Gotti
shows that not only the dissemination of new scientific knowledge, but also
''socialization purposes'' (p. 106) within the discourse community contribute to
brevity, lack of assertiveness, perspicuity and objectivity as conspicuous novel
features of the experimental essay. Apart from the all-embracing historical
account, the implicit discussion of the fact that a genre can also be created
and taught is a further merit of this article. The role and conditions of
''invention'' and ''teaching'' of (certain) genres in relation to their
has, as far as I know, generally been disregarded.

Javier Pérez-Guerra & Ana E. Martínez-Insua's article, ''Do some genres or text
types become more complex than others?'' represents an almost modern variant of
the ''experimental essay'' with their primarily quantitative analysis of syntactic
complexity. Syntactic complexity is measured according to eight formal criteria
such as size and length of sentence constituents, syntactic density, depth,
efficiency, etc. The diachronic study explores the complexity of subjects,
objects and adverbials in letters and newspapers since 1750, meaning a rather
coarse-grained concept of genre has been applied. However, this choice and the
authors' methodology are justified by the generality of the research question,
and by their results: it may not be surprising that more complex syntactic
structures are found in news than in letters, but that no significant changes
over time are recorded, a valuable finding with cognitive implications.

Wolfgang Imo's contribution, ''Mein Problem ist/mein Thema ist ('My problem is/my
topic is'): How syntactic patterns and genres interact,'' explores how far genre
switch in oral communication can be triggered by specific constructions. He
studies two different radio formats: psychological counselling vs. a small talk
programme, which he finds to correlate with specific preferred constructions in
German, i.e. ''My problem is/my topic is.'' Imo finds that a caller who says ''my
problem is,'' may trigger a switch from small talk to a counselling session,
whereas this does not happen if the callers introduce their contribution with
''my topic is.'' Imo's subject is inspiring, and his observation that certain
constructions can trigger a genre switch is certainly correct and ties in with
Wray's notion that formulas ''will often be pre-associated with particular
overtones or significance'' (Wray 2008: 20). On the other hand, the article
appears a little too positivistic and it is less convincing in its methodology
than others in the volume. Imo does not consider further pragmatic factors
influencing the success or failure of communication, as expounded in
communicative models by Jacobson (1960), Schulz von Thun (1981) and others, nor
does it become clear whether or not he had tested for counterexamples. Moreover,
it is surprising that his examples do not contain the formula ''my problem/topic
is'' as his title and the text suggest: it is the keywords ''problem'' vs. ''topic''
whose semantics seem to ''do the trick'' alone. As such, his connection to
Construction Grammar seems a little forced, even if one grants that lexemes are
also constructions. However, if one reads this article as a work in progress
with preliminary results, it is stimulating and the inclusion in the collection
is worthwhile.

Cornelius Puschmann's article '''Thank you for thinking we could': Use and
function of interpersonal pronouns in corporate web logs'' is a study in
computer-mediated communication (CMC). He explores inter-personal pronouns
(IPPs) in the emerging genre of corporate blogs; that is to say the study
operates on the lower pole of generality. Corporate blogs are found to be a
hybrid between personal blogs and business communications serving ''companies to
personalize their communication'' (p. 172). Puschmann is able to show that a)
IPPs can serve as implicit genre markers and b) the overall use of first person
plural is typical for corporate blogs. The richness of aspects to the study of
IPPs and blogs, which Puschmann offers, is remarkable, yet the logical link is
not always obvious. As a result, the article almost entices the reader to
proceed to Puschmann's entire dissertation (2010), from which the article is
apparently derived and where these slight communicative gaps would certainly be

Part two of the collection starts off with Susanne Günthner's article on
''Grammatical constructions and communicative genres.'' Günthner argues in her
qualitative study - similarly to Imo - that specific constructions are typical
for specific genres and vice versa. She focuses on constructions used in
informal spoken language, which in other contexts would be regarded as
ungrammatical, such as German what-constructions in informal reproaches. Thus,
dependencies of certain constructions on genre are clearly demonstrated.
Günthner's study is located at the very low end of the scale of generality:
''reproaches'' are in classical pragmatics labelled ''speech acts'' (Searle 1969)
rather than ''communicative genre,'' a term which connects her to sociolinguistics
and anthropological linguistics. One may wonder, however, whether this
amplification of terminology is necessary.

Britta Mondorf's ''Genre effects in the replacement of reflexives by particles''
is again a very sound diachronic and diatopic study of three resultative
constructions, which can be formed either with a reflexive or a particle such as
''to brace oneself'' vs. ''to brace up.'' She quantitatively relates the occurrences
of the alternative structures in different text types, in written vs. spoken
English, and in British vs. American English. Her empirical data show that
particle constructions are winning ground at the expense of the reflexive on
each of the studied dimensions, especially in spoken informal language and in
fictional texts. Only religious and scientific genres have not as yet followed
this general trend, as they are highly conventionalised and therefore rather

Johannes Kabatek, Philipp Obrist & Valentina Vincis' most insightful article
''Clause linkage techniques as a symptom of 'discourse traditions':
Methodological issues and evidence from Romance languages'' links the evolution
of specific constructions with a study of cross-genre variation. In other words
a diachronic study is fine-tuned by a synchronic cross-section according to
discourse communities. The contribution is based on discourse tradition theory
(Koch 1997, Oesterreicher 1997, Coseriu 1988 and Schlieben-Lange 1983) which
assumes that utterances are not only shaped by the grammar of a language, but
also ''by concrete utterances that have already been produced: utterances that
are part of the tradition of a community, or discourse traditions'' (p. 250). The
authors present a quantitative study on clause linking techniques using a
specialized historical corpus of Romance texts which exemplifies that synchronic
variation must not be excluded as ''noise'' from diachronic studies, but that a
more fine-grained genre analysis, which takes into account the communicative
contexts, is the more appropriate way to cope with the complexity of language

Rolf Kreyer's paper, ''Syntactic constructions as a means of spatial
representation in fictional prose,'' discusses six fronted locative
constructions, which, in line with cognitive perception theories, mirror the
natural gaze of an observer. The quantitative analysis demonstrates that despite
the differences in frequency of occurrence, the functionality of the six
constructions in terms of information status and textual function are rather
similar. This finding is very interesting as it seems to provide empirical
evidence of synonymy, which is ''banned'' in a number of syntactic theories (e.g.
Goldberg 1995). Kreyer, however, does not follow this line of thought, but
concludes, amongst other things, that some of these ''constructions contribute to
our conception of the genre prose fiction'' (pp. 299-300). This, in turn, is
surprising as a comparative study with other narrative genres is missing.
Moreover, one may wonder whether ''prose fiction'' would not be better
subcategorised into further literary sub-genres like children's writings, crime
fiction or romance, etc. If we want to render conclusions about general ''prose
fiction'' valid, a truly balanced corpus, which is able to level out authorial
idiosyncrasies, the variety of implied readers and specifics of subjects - if
such a thing is possible at all - must certainly be larger than the section
labelled ''prose fiction'' in the BNC, on which the study is based.

In contrast, Susanne Jantos' ''Agreement in educated Jamaican English: A
corpus-based study of spoken usage in ICE-Jamaica,'' gives a convincing example
of a solid study on a higher level of generality. This quantitative study
thoroughly explores subject-verb agreement in three spoken genres of educated
Jamaican English, namely a) direct conversation, b) class lessons and c)
broadcast news, and relates the morphosyntactic variable to several factors,
such as conceptual agreement (i.e. implicit plurals in abstract singular nouns),
proximity principle (i.e. agreement with the nearest noun instead of the subject
noun), contractions ('there is' vs. 'there's'; 'don't' vs. 'do not') and
different behaviour of auxiliaries and full lexical verbs. Although, as could be
expected, grammatical agreement was found to increase with increasing formality,
the observed patterns are not evenly distributed. Genre characteristics, such as
a higher percentage of heavy subject constructions and collective nouns in
broadcast news, or of indefinite pronouns and the influence of Jamaican Creole
in direct conversation seem influential, so that one cannot speak of general
trends of linguistic development, but of genre-dependent changes.

The last article by Theresa Heyd, '''I know you guys hate forwards': Address
pronouns in digital folklore,'' chronicles a quantitative study on the emergent
genre of email hoaxes. After a short introduction into the concept of digital
folklore, Heyd elaborates on the form and functions of address in email hoaxes.
The popularity of certain oral, informal addresses such as ''you guys'' is
interpreted as a solution to a specific communicative requirement. The author is
therefore wisely reluctant to postulate a language change on its way, but argues
that emergent digital genres possibly offer oral forms a first access point into
the written mode. From there, it may spread into other genres, as genres are
interwoven and interacting like the inhabitants of an ecological environment.
Although overall a very stimulating study, the link between her theoretical and
empirical expositions becomes more convincing if one also refers to her 2008


Without a doubt, the volume in its entirety is inspiring. The intellectual
standard is high, and there are only a few minor flaws in individual papers. Two
points may be interesting to dwell on a bit further: First, as mentioned above,
the articles implicitly circle around one question in different guises: the
right scale of generalisation. As happens with traditional fuzzy concepts such
as genre, it is difficult to delineate and take into account all influential
factors, which, to make matters still more complicated, may vary from case to
case. To show that the scale of ''genre'' may successfully change according to the
research question is one of the major positive side effects of this volume. Even
though Saussure teaches us that language is arbitrary, and in cognitive
linguistics we believe that words are but pointers to experiences and that
meaning is situated and not stable, once we do research, linguists tend to think
that terminology ought to capture an everlasting ontology. The present volume,
instead, offers a more dynamic, and, in my opinion, a more realistic view on how
to treat categories which are intuitively easy to identify but logically hard to

Second, looking at the definition of genre as ''patterned practice'' of ''social
action'' (p. 10) or ''sedimented patterns, [...] which are part of [one's]
communicative knowledge'' (p. 197), or Virtanen's view of text/discourse types as
''heuristics that facilitate discourse production and interpretation'' (p. 54), an
analogy can be drawn to psycho-social explanations for formulaic language as
''one of several solutions to a non-linguistic problem'' (Wray 2008: 21). Seen in
this light it is interesting to note that cognitive concepts in phraseology and
genre studies seem to converge, even though genre embraces a much larger
linguistic unit. The case of Boyle's Experimental Essay (as described in Gotti's
article) even shows that not only lexical sequences but also genres may be
''quoted.'' On the other hand, the volume points to the fact that this analogy has
hardly ever been drawn and that genre studies operate as yet independently from
phraseology. Accordingly, references to the works of Kuiper (e.g. Kuiper 1996),
for instance, who has been working on the interface between phraseology and
genre studies for years, are missing. It is therefore a desideratum for the
future to bring these two research fields together.

The articles are all written in an accessible style, so that the publication is
suitable not only for experts, but also for students of linguistics. It is
recommendable to all who want to broaden their horizons and embark on linguistic
studies at the borders of traditional sub-disciplines.


Coseriu, Eugenio. 1988. Sprachkompetenz. Grundzüge der Theorie des Sprechens.
Tübingen: Francke.

Goldberg, Adele E. 1995. Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to
Argument Structure. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Grice, Paul. 1957. ''Meaning.'' Philosophical Review 66. 377-88.

Heyd, Theresa. 2008. Email Hoaxes: Form, Function, Genre Ecology. (Pragmatics &
Beyond New Series 174). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jacobson, Roman. 1960. ''Linguistics and Poetics.'' In Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.).
Style in Language. New York: MIT Press. 350-377.

Koch, Peter. 1997. ''Diskurstraditionen. Zu ihrem sprachtheoretischen Status und
ihrer Dynamik.'' In Barbara Frank, Thomas Haye & Doris Tophinke (eds.), Gattungen
mittelalterlicher Schriftlichkeit. (Script Oralia 99). Tübingen: Gunter Narr. 43-79.

Kuiper, Koenraad. 1996. Smooth Talkers: The Linguistic Performance of
Auctioneers and Sportscasters. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Miller, Carolyn R. 1984. ''Genre as social action.'' Quarterly Journal of Speech
70. 151-167.

Oesterreicher, Wulf. 1997. ''Zur Fundierung von Diskurstraditionen.'' In Barbara
Frank, Thomas Haye & Doris Tophinke (eds.), Gattungen mittelalterlicher
Schriftlichkeit. (Script Oralia 99). Tübingen: Gunter Narr. 19-41.

Puschmann, Cornelius. 2010. The Corporate Blog as an Emerging Genre of
Computer-Mediated Communication: Features, Constraints, Discourse Situation.
(Göttinger Schriften zur Internetforschung.) Göttingen: Universitätsverlag

Schlieben-Lange, Brigitte. 1983. Traditionen des Sprechens. Elemente einer
pragmatischen Sprachgeschichtsschreibung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Schulz von Thun, Friedemann. 1981. Miteinander reden: Störungen und Klärungen.
Psychologie der zwischenmenschlichen Kommunikation. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1981.

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Virtanen, Tuija. 1992. ''Issues of text typology: Narrative - a 'basic' type of
text?'' Text 12. 293-310.

Wray, Alison. 2008. Formulaic Language: Pushing the Boundaries. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Sixta Quassdorf holds a Lizentiat (equivalent to M.A.) from Basel University in English philology, general linguistics and philosophy. She has a broad interest in linguistics ranging from philosophical, historical, formal-theoretical to pragmatic and usage-based issues. She has been collaborator with several research projects at the University of Basel and is doing her PhD in English linguistics on historical phraseology.