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Review of  The progressive in 19th-century English

Reviewer: Clemens Fritz
Book Title: The progressive in 19th-century English
Book Author: Erik Smitterberg
Publisher: Rodopi
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.1798

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Date: Tue, 7 Jun 2005 21:19:17 +0200
From: Clemens Fritz
Subject: The Progressive in 19th-century English

AUTHOR: Smitterberg, Erik
TITLE: The Progressive in 19th-century English
SUBTITLE: A process of integration
SERIES: Language and Computers 54
YEAR: 2005

Clemens Fritz, Freie Universität Berlin


Smitterberg's "The progressive in 19th-century English" is a superb
account of the development of the progressive, its different forms and
uses in Late Modern English English (EngE). For the nineteenth
century the development of the passive progressive and the
progressive form of 'be' have been recorded, but so far there has
been no comprehensive corpus-based study of the progressive using
periods, genre and gender as variables. The author's findings are
corpus-based and are related to previous research throughout. The
basic line of argument is that quantitative developments reveal where
and to what extent the progressive became increasingly integrated
into EngE. The book's wide scope will make it a convenient and
reliable reference work and should stimulate further research.


The book is divided into eight chapters, a references section and
three appendices; an index, which would have made the book even
more accessible, is missing. The table of contents is very detailed
allowing quick access to select points of interest. At the beginning of
each chapter and sub-chapter the planned course is outlined;
summaries are provided throughout. The first two chapters deal with
methodology and the corpus used. In Chapters 3-7 several
investigations are presented which are then summarized in Chapter 8.


Chapter 1:
It contains the general background, the aim and scope of the study,
the terminology, the analytical frameworks and typographical and
statistical conventions. Smitterberg chose the nineteenth century,
since it is a relatively neglected period of study. Too long it was
assumed that language use then was next to identical to present-day
English (PDE). Only recently interest in late Modern English has
grown; e.g. Bailey (1996), Fritz (fc.), Goerlach (1999) and Romaine

The progressive in the nineteenth century has been dealt with in
several important articles, e.g. Arnaud (1998), Geisler (2003) and
Hundt (2004). Apart from that, historical grammars, e.g. Visser (1973)
and Denison (1998) are taken into account by Smitterberg. Another
very influential background is Biber (1988) with his cross-genre
analysis of the co-occurrence patterns of a large number of linguistic
features. Biber identified several dimensions of language, e.g.
involved vs. informational production; some of them distinguish
typically oral from literate genres. Smitterberg uses all these
investigations to find research questions and as points of comparison
for his results.

Chapter 2:
Smitterberg here presents his database, a Corpus Of Nineteenth
Century English (CONCE). This corpus was not specially built for the
study and is not available publicly yet. CONCE contains ca. 900,000
words of nineteenth century EngE. It is subdivided into three periods
(1800-30, 1850-70 and 1870-1900), each of which contain the same
amount of words in the following genres: Debates, Drama, Fiction,
History, Letters, Science and Trials.

Two limitations fall into view immediately. First, CONCE is small
compared to corpora of present-day English; but other historical
corpora, like ARCHER and the Helsinki Corpus, even have a smaller
number of words per century. Second, the material used is restricted
to published material mostly by well-educated, well-known and well-off
persons. This raises questions of representativity. Although
Smitterberg retrieves the progressives from CONCE via a
concordance program, WordSmith Tools, he takes great care to find
the best search strings and through extensive post-editing he arrives
at reliable data.

Chapter 3:
This chapter discusses four methods of measuring the frequency of
the progressive and states how these methods relate to variationist
studies. Three have already been used in previous research, the
fourth method is a new one designed by the author himself.

In the following Smitterberg uses the M-coefficient, which normalizes
the raw frequency of the progressive to occurrences per 100,000
words, and the S-coefficient, which establishes the number of
progressives in relation to the number of non-progressives. Applying
the M-coefficient, Smitterberg can show that the progressive rises
considerably in frequency over the three periods (172 – 263 - 316).

The seven genres show widely differing M-coefficients; they are
lowest for Science (85) and Debates (89) and highest for Letters
(307) and Trials (309). Clearly, use of the progressive is very genre-
specific. Differences increase over time, showing that the genres
themselves develop new forms and functions and that the progressive
aids these developments. Progressives are also much more frequent
in female than in male writings. Here, too, differences increase over

Chapter 4:
The chapter compares some of the results from Chapter 3 with the
results of Geisler's (2003) factor score analysis. The aim is to see
whether, for example, high frequencies of the progressives co-occur
with high frequencies of features characteristic of involved or
informational production. This can yield insights into the functions of
the progressive. Smitterberg shows that orality correlates positively
with higher frequencies for the progressive. The same goes for
involved production and situation-dependent reference.

Chapter 5:
In this chapter, the occurrence patterns of the progressive within the
verb phrase is analysed. Four features are looked at: tense (present
vs. past), the perfect, voice and modal auxiliaries. For the first two, no
clear diachronic development could be established. For the fourth, the
number of progressives was actually decreasing. The investigation of
voice is particularly interesting since there was a new type, the
passive progressive 'The house is being built', that eventually
replaced the passival 'The house is building'. The passive progressive
started in informal genres, gradually spread and finally became the
dominant mode of expressing passive voice with progressives.

Chapter 6:
Here Smitterberg examines five linguistic variables that have been
found to be important for the development and distribution of the
progressive. They are: (1) the main verbs that can form progressives,
(2) the Aktionsart value of the progressives (stative/non-stative;
durative/non-durative), (3) the agentivity of the subjects, (4) the
modification by temporal adverbials and (5) the type of clause
progressives occur in.

Smitterberg found clearer indications of change with (4) and (5) than
with (1)-(3). Non-agentivity with progressives had already risen
considerably between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but do
not increase within the nineteenth century. For (4) he states that
increased integration of the progressive probably led to a decrease in
the need for modification by temporal adverbials. For (5) the result
was that the progressive indeed became more frequent in main

Chapter 7:
The term 'not solely aspectual' is used for progressives that express
something beyond purely aspectual meaning, for instance subjectivity,
emotional involvement and emphasis. In sum they imply an attitudinal
focus from the speaker's perspective. This meaning of the progressive
has been marginalized in present-day English; in CONCE ca. 1/4 of all
progressives were classified as 'not solely aspectual'. Smitterberg
investigates (1) progressives modified by 'always' and similar
adverbials, (2) 'experiential' progressives and (3) 'interpretative'
progressives. (1) did not change in the course of the century, (2)
increased significantly in frequency and (3) increased greatly but not

Chapter 8:
In this chapter Smitterberg again summarizes all his findings and here
and there adds a new note. He stresses that period, genre and
gender have a definite impact on the frequency of the progressive. He
also cautions that a multi-faceted feature like the progressive requires
a multi-faceted approach. The question whether or to what extent the
progressive became more integrated in nineteenth century English
greatly depends on the feature investigated. To exemplify this he
states that some aspects of the integration process had already taken
place before or by 1800 while others did not really start before 1900.
He closes the book with suggestions for further research.

These list the sources used for CONCE and its text-level codes and
spell out the statistical tests done on the data.


As already stated initially, Smitterberg (2005) is a remarkable and very
valuable contribution to the historical study of the English language.
Nevertheless a few critical comments have to be made. The first
regards the representativity of the corpus used. CONCE is a rather
small corpus of educated EngE. This should always be borne in mind
when interpreting the data and generalizing the results. Although true
representativity can never be achieved, the size and the status bias of
CONCE certainly greatly influence the outcomes. Smitterberg tends to
downplay this.

Time and again, Smitterberg admits that due to restrictions of time he
was unable to follow-up some interesting results with additional
investigations. While this is very honest, and also understandable, the
reader sometimes can get the feeling that if Smitterberg had used
another six months preparing the book it would have been even more
interesting than it is now.

In isolated cases the coherence of the book seems improvable.
Smitterberg (p253) states that "the aspects of the progressive that
were investigated were chosen largely on the basis of what previous
research has indicated as being of interest and, when possible, on the
basis of pilot studies". Sometimes the chapters look more like a
collection of independent papers, a fact partially, but not totally
remedied by the summarizing chapter 8. In principle it is good that
Smitterberg continually writes extensive intros and summaries. On the
other hand, his writings can become repetitive and thus invite skipping
(since the results will be summarized again later anyway). However,
this is a potentially dangerous thing, because Smitterberg's carefully
worded interpretations sometimes become much stronger in the
summaries and are presented as facts.

It is very laudable that Smitterberg discusses his sources and his
methodology always using illustrative examples. He is aware of
possible limitations and he is open about them. This enables the
readers to find out for themselves whether a result is reliable or
significant or how it relates to other studies. This also makes it easier
to compare his findings. His excellent discussion of the theoretical
issues make the book an excellent reference work for the history of
the progressive.

Smitterberg is very careful in his data-collection and his
interpretations. This is wonderfully captured in the
phrase "potentially 'experiental' progressives" which he uses to show
that his method of extracting such progressives is not 100 per cent
perfect and also entails subjective choices. This is not a criticism of
Smitterberg. He only openly states what all researchers do but do not
always talk about.

The book contains numerous quotes which help the reader to
understand Smitterberg's points and also allow independent
judgments. Another important point is that Smitterberg investigated a
period of English that has come into focus only recently. No doubt his
book is another milestone here. Basically there are two desiderata
which invite more research in this field. Smitterberg's results should be
compared to results from other, contemporary, varieties and the
influence of socio-economic status should be investigated.

Fritz (fc.) has looked at nineteenth century English in Australia using a
self-collected two-million word corpus, COOEE. He found that the
frequency of the progressive was much more influenced by the origin
of the author than by gender; origin as a factor is even stronger than
genre. Status is much less influential than other factors. In general
progressives are much less frequent in nineteenth century Australia
than found in Britain (Smitterberg 2005). COOEE and CONCE
disagree most widely in the genres TRIALS and DRAMA, but are fairly


Arnaud, R., 1998, The development of the progressive in 19th century
English: a quantitative survey, Language Variation and Change 10,

Bailey, Richard W., 1996, Nineteenth-Century English, Ann Arbor: The
University of Michigan Press.

Biber, Douglas, 1988, Variation across Speech and Writing,
Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Denison, David, 1998, Syntax, In: Romaine, Suzanne, ed, 92-329.

Fritz, Clemens, fc., From English in Australia to Australian English:

Geisler, Christer, 2003, Gender-based variation in nineteenth century
English letter writing, In: Leistyna, P. and C. Meyer, eds, Corpus
Analysis: Language Structure and Language Use, Amsterdam and
New York: Rodopi, 87-106.

Goerlach, Manfred, 1999, English in Nineteenth-Century England. An
Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Hundt, Marianne, 2004, The passival and the progressive passive: a
case study of layering in the English aspect and voice systems, In:
Lindquist, H. and C. Mair, eds, Corpus Approaches to
Grammaticalization in English, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John
Benjamins, 79-120.

Romaine, Suzanne, ed, 1998, 1776-1997 (= Cambridge History of the
English Language, Vol IV), Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Visser, Fredericus Th., 1973, An Historical Syntax of the English
Language, Leiden: Brill.


After studies in Regensburg, Germany, and Galway, Ireland, Clemens
Fritz graduated with a master's degree in English and History in 1995.
For ten years now he has worked and published on early Australian
English. A particular focus is on Irish English and its survival in
Australia. In 1998 the reviewer started a two-year teacher training
programme and has been teaching English, history and drama in a
German secondary school since 2000. For a more detailed CV and a
list of publications see: .