English Language and Linguistics

Research Article

Grammatical change in the noun phrase: the influence of written language use


a1 Department of English, College of Arts and Letters, Northern Arizona State University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA Douglas.Biber@nau.edu, Bethany.Gray@nau.edu


Many discussions of grammatical change have focused on grammatical innovation in the discourse contexts of conversational interaction. We argue here that it is also possible for grammatical innovation to emerge out of the communicative demands of written discourse. In particular, the distinctive communicative characteristics of academic writing (informational prose) have led to the development of a discourse style that relies heavily on nominal structures, with extensive phrasal modification and a relative absence of verbs. By tracking the historical development of this discourse style, we can also observe the development of particular grammatical functions that are emerging in writing. We focus here on two grammatical features – nouns as nominal premodifiers and prepositional phrases as nominal postmodifiers – analyzing their historical development over the last four centuries in a corpus of academic research writing (compared to other registers such as fiction, newspaper reportage and conversation). Our analysis shows that these grammatical features were quite restricted in function and variability in earlier historical periods of English. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they became much more frequent and productive, accompanied by major extensions in their functions, variants, and range of lexical associations. These extensions were restricted primarily to informational written discourse, illustrating ways in which new grammatical functions emerge in writing rather than speech.

(Received May 10 2010)

(Revised January 07 2011)

(Online publication June 08 2011)