The changing verb phrase in present-day British English

funded by
AHRC logo

Ref: AH/E006299/1
Institution: University College London
Department: Department of English (Survey of English Usage)
Principal investigator: Bas Aarts
Research Fellow: Jo Close
Period: 1 November 2007 to 31 October 2010

Project Proposal

Traditionally, the study of the development of the morphosyntax of English has been carried out by historical linguists who have concerned themselves mostly with changes occurring across long periods of time (e.g. the development of the English inflectional system from Old to Middle English). Changes across shorter periods of time have received much less attention up to the 1990s, with a few exceptions, such as Barber (1964). Recently, there has been a realisation among syntacticians (following work by sociolinguists like Labov) that languages change all the time, often in very subtle ways. This is belied by the old synchronic/diachronic dichotomy that has entrenched itself in the field. In the field of syntax 'recent change' is thus an emerging research area which recognises that short-term changes are an important part of grammar systems. Key publications are Denison (1993, 1998, 2001, 2004), Mair (1995, 1997), Mair & Hundt (1995, 1997), Mair & Leech (2006), Leech (2000, 2003, 2004), Smith (2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2005), Smith & Leech (2001) and Leech et al. (forthcoming).

In the present project we will conduct a large-scale investigation of changes in the (morpho)syntax of the spoken British English verb phrase (VP; conceived of as a verb+dependents) over a period of twenty-five years (1960s-1990s), using the Diachronic Corpus of Present-day Spoken English (DCPSE, see below), and addressing the following research questions:

  • Which changes have occurred in the structure of the VP, concerning word order and complexity?

  • Which changes have occurred in the major verb complementation patterns in English? And are there changes in the way complementation patterns are 'mixed'? In this connection the Principal Investigator (PI) has found many examples like the following:

    Five-year strategies need us to change and adapt. (Sky News)='require us to change and adapt'+'pose a need for us to change and adapt'

    Are you prepared to track down who these people are? (Channel Four News)='Are you prepared to track these people down'+'Are you prepared to find out who these people are?'

    This returns us to an issue... (student dissertation) = 'This brings us to an issue'+'I return to an issue'.

    Is this kind of blending a new trend? What conditions it?

  • Have there been changes in the aspectual system? There is evidence that the progressive is much more widespread than it used to be (witness the McDonalds slogan I'm loving it! and the so-called 'interpretive progressive', see Smith 2005), and there are signs that English present perfect constructions are now being used with adjuncts specifying a definite time reference.

  • Have there been changes in the mood system of English? The use of the subjunctive has both been argued to be on the increase and on the decline. Is there evidence for either position? And is the spoken/written dimension of relevance here?

  • Have there been changes in the English tense and voice systems, e.g. the use of the past and present tenses and the passive?

  • Have there been shifts in the use of auxiliary verbs, especially the semi-auxiliaries and the modals?

Regarding all of the above: why have the changes, if any, taken place? And are the differences, if any, statistically significant?

Intertwined with the issues above are questions that have wider implications for grammar systems in general:

  • Are particular components of grammar more prone to change than others, and if so, why?

  • In this connection, is it possible to devise a model for a notion of 'productivity in change', perhaps using methods recently adopted in morphology (Baayen 1989, 2001)?

  • What are the differences between long-term and short-term changes?

  • Do changes propagate themselves equally in all genres of spoken English, or do particular forms of spoken English, e.g. conversation, display more change than others?

As will be clear from the above, there is a wide spectrum of interrelated research questions, making this a fertile area of investigation.

In summary, the objectives of the project are:

  1. A series of comprehensive and detailed studies of the (morpho)syntactic changes (and the nature of these changes) that have occurred in the spoken English VP over a period of some twenty-five years (1960s-1990s) which address a number of closely related research questions, detailed above.

  2. A quantitative account of the perceived changes, obtained by conducting statistical studies on DCPSE.

  3. An explanation of the perceived changes and statistical patterns, relating them especially to long-term changes.

  4. A contribution to the debate regarding the study of language change in general, and grammar systems in particular, e.g. the question whether certain components of grammar are more prone to change than others, whether it is possible to devise a model for a notion of 'productivity in change', and the question whether there are differences between long-term and short-term change and between genres of spoken English.

The proposed methodology will be discussed below.

Research Context

The study of current change in syntax is important not only because it is an underexplored domain of research, but first and foremost because it enlarges the body of knowledge pertaining to English verbal syntax. What's more, in a wider context, the findings of the proposed project may bring about a change in the way linguists view the progress of language systems over time. The relatively small number of studies of short-term syntactic change that have been conducted to date (see above) already show that the distinction between diachronic and synchronic approaches, established by De Saussure, is misguided and should be re-appraised. We hope to make valuable contributions to this debate. The proposed research will be of interest to those who are interested in English syntax and grammar, as well as (English) historical linguists.

Research Methods

Corpora are especially useful for gathering data that pertain to recent change. With this in mind Christian Mair constructed the FLOB corpus (Freiburg-Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen) and the FROWN corpus (Freiburg-Brown), both of which contain written English from the 1990s. FLOB and FROWN match the LOB (Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen) and Brown corpora containing written English from the 1960s.

In 2006 the Survey of English Usage (SEU) published a new corpus: the Diachronic Corpus of Present-Day Spoken English (DCPSE). It contains 400,000 words of 1960s spoken material from the London-Lund Corpus (LLC [1]), and 400,000 words of 1990s spoken material from the British Component of the International Corpus of English (ICE-GB [2]) in matching text categories. DCPSE includes only spontaneous spoken English, such as face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations, various types of discussions and debates, legal cross-examinations, business transactions, speeches and interviews. This is important because changes in English propagate themselves in the first instance through spontaneous discourse. It is possible for researchers to listen to the spoken material. As in ICE-GB, all sentences in DCPSE are represented in tree diagrams, like the one shown in Figure 1 below:

Figure 1: An example of a tree diagram [3].

In this tree diagram each lexical item, phrase and clause is associated with a node which contains function information (top left), form information (top right), as well as features (bottom portion). Using this architecture DCPSE can be searched with the corpus exploration software ICECUP (the International Corpus of English Corpus Utility Program), developed at the SEU. This software enables linguists to search for lexical items and grammatical patterns. A unique feature of ICECUP is the Fuzzy Tree Fragments (FTF) facility which allows users to construct approximate (hence 'fuzzy') models of tree structures, which can be searched for in the corpus. Figure 2 shows an example of an FTF which matches all instances of a VP followed by a direct object (OD).[4]

Figure 2: An FTF created with ICECUP

This short overview describes only a small amount of the rich functionality of ICECUP: it offers an enormous range of search options, which cannot be described here in the space allowed. DCPSE is an unparalleled resource for linguists interested in short-term changes in spoken English, and is already being used by research groups and doctoral students.[5] For more details on ICE-GB/DCPSE/ICECUP, see Aarts et al. (1998), Nelson et al. (2002).

How do we propose to use DCPSE? The first step will be to create a database of constructional patterns. This will be done by conducting lexical searches as well as by building FTFs, like the one above. This will involve a careful consideration of the component parts of the syntactic strings, as well as the relevant features that pertain to them. Once the results have been obtained they will need to be 'cleaned up' manually to weed out any irrelevant patterns. The database can then be used for qualitative research addressing the questions enumerated above. ICECUP enables researchers to examine the context in which a particular construction occurs, as well as listen to the sound material, which is now available, fully aligned with the texts. We then conduct statistical studies of the perceived changes between the component parts of DCPSE, tabulate the changes, and assess the statistical significance of the differences. It is important to stress that while statistically significant quantitative results will be an important focus of this study, we also intend to furnish explanations for the observed changes, especially in relation to long-term changes. Thus one might wonder, if the progressive is indeed used more often, why is this so? Which pragmatic and/or grammatical forces are at play? The framework of research is a modern descriptive one, in the tradition of Quirk et al. (1985) and Huddleston and Pullum et al. (2002). The aim of the research will be to arrive at reasoned analyses of the phenomena encountered using argumentative techniques prevalent in modern linguistics.

The question arises at this juncture: 'How does the PI know that the research will uncover anything interesting?', 'Isn't the time span for change too short?', and 'Is the corpus not too small?'. In answer to the first two questions we point to earlier work, namely:

  • A pilot investigation by the PI (Aarts & Aarts 2002);

  • The work on current change referred to at the beginning of this section;

  • Professor Geoffrey Leech's AHRB project Grammatical change in recent English (1961-1991): a corpus-based investigation, and

  • Smith's 2005 PhD thesis on the English progressive.

These projects have demonstrated that significant changes have occurred in written English over only three decades. Naturally, we will build on these studies. However, as noted, a major difference between previous work and ours is that the earlier studies have almost exclusively been concerned with written English. Regarding the third question, DCPSE contains over 121,000 VPs, so there's no scarcity of data. In sum, this project will be the first comprehensive study of changes in the verbal system of spoken English using DCPSE.

Project Management

We hope to appoint a Research Assistant (RA) of postdoctoral standing with expertise in English syntax, historical linguistics and statistics to carry out the research at the SEU, which offers an excellent, well-equipped work environment. The RA's tasks are detailed in the timetable below.

This job will be advertised on the Linguist List and in June.

The project will be managed on a day-to-day basis by Bas Aarts, who has an established research record in verbal syntax. Regular meetings between the PI and RA will be conducted, when progress will be discussed. The PI will be closely involved in the preparation and writing of conference presentations and articles. Where needed IT specialist Sean Wallis is at hand to assist, and the expertise of Gerald Nelson, an authority in corpus linguistics, can also be tapped.

Dissemination and Knowledge Transfer

The results will be relevant for scholars/students in (English) linguistics and historical linguistics, and will principally be disseminated through research articles in refereed journals and in edited books. PI and RA will also present papers at international conferences relevant to the research proposed, specifically the International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, the International Conference on the Linguistics of Contemporary English and the ICAME conference. We also aim to produce an edited volume on current change (if possible linked to a conference we will organise on the topic). In the longer term a monograph written by the PI and RA is also envisaged. We will maintain a comprehensive project website.


Research Tasks Months
Phase   Σ

1. Preparation

  • Read the literature on current change and become familiar with the methods and techniques of diachronic linguistics.
  • Create a bibliography of references; write a literature overview.
  • Training in the use of ICE-GB/DCPSE (provided by PI).
  • Set up a project website.
  • Attend courses (where appropriate) in statistics, software applications, etc.
4 4

2. Data collection

  • Construct Fuzzy Tree Fragments for the various patterns and constructions (listed above).
  • Conduct searches using ICECUP.
  • Create a systematic and ‘cleaned-up’ database of examples (with context) for each of the research areas listed above.
  • Conduct statistical tests on the perceived changes occurring in the relevant constructions between the two components of DCPSE.
4 8

3. Conduct separate studies which address the research questions listed above for:

  • The structure of the VP: word order and complexity.
  • Verb complementation.
  • The aspectual system.
  • The mood system.
  • The tense and voice systems.
  • Auxiliary verbs, especially the semi-auxiliaries and the modals.
24 32
4. Write articles pertaining to the domains shown under 3. 4 36
Maintain website during all phases. Attend conferences during phase 3 to present initial results.    
Total time in months   36


Aarts, B., Nelson, G., and Wallis, S. (1998) Using Fuzzy Tree Fragments to explore English grammar. English Today 14, 52-56.

Aarts, B. and F. Aarts (2002) Relative whom: a 'mischief-maker'. In: Fischer et al. Text types and corpora. Narr. 123-130.

Baayen, H. (1989) A corpus-based approach to morphological productivity. PhD, Amsterdam.

Baayen, H. (2001) Word frequency distributions. Kluwer.

Barber, C. (1964) Linguistic change in present-day English. Oliver & Boyd.

Denison, D. (1993) Some recent changes in the English verb. In: Gotti, English diachronic syntax. Guerini. 15-33.

Denison, D. (1998) Syntax. In: Romaine, The Cambridge history of the English language IV. CUP. 92-329.

Denison, D. (2001) Gradience and linguistic change. In: Brinton, Historical linguistics 1999. Benjamins. 119-144.

Denison, D. (2004) Do grammars change when they leak? In: Kay et al., New perspectives on English historical linguistics. Volume 1. Benjamins. 15-29.

Huddleston, R. and G. Pullum et al. (2002) The Cambridge grammar of the English language. CUP.

Leech, G. (2000) Diachronic linguistics across a generation gap: from the 1960s to the 1990s. Paper at the symposium Grammar and Lexis, London.

Leech, G. (2003) Modality on the move: the English modal auxiliaries 1961-1992. In: Facchinetti et al., Modality in Contemporary English. Mouton de Gruyter. 223-240.

Leech, G. (2004) Recent grammatical change in English: data, description, theory. In: Aijmer & Altenberg, Advances in Corpus Linguistics. Rodopi. 61-81.

Leech, G., C. Mair, M. Hundt and N. Smith (forthcoming) Change in contemporary English. CUP.

Mair, C. (1995) Changing patterns of complementation and concomitant grammaticalisation of the verb help in present-day English. In: Aarts & Meyer, The verb in contemporary English. CUP. 258-272.

Mair, C. (1997) Parallel corpora: a real-time approach to the study of language change in Progress. In: Ljung, Corpus-based studies in English. Rodopi. 195-209.

Mair, C. and M. Hundt, M. (1995) Why is the progressive becoming more frequent in English? A corpus-based investigation of language change in progress. Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 43.2. 111-122.

Mair, C. and M. Hundt (1997) The corpus-based approach to language change in progress. In: Böker & Sauer, Anglistentag 1996. Dresden. 71-82.

Mair, C. and G. Leech (2006) Current changes in English syntax. In: Aarts & McMahon, The Handbook of English Linguistics. Blackwell. 318-342.

Nelson, G., S. Wallis, and B. Aarts (2002). Exploring natural language. Rodopi.

Quirk, R. S. Greenbaum, G. Leech and J. Svartvik (1985) A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Longman.

Smith, N. (2002) Ever moving on? The progressive in recent British English. In: Peters et al., New frontiers of corpus research. Rodopi. 317-330.

Smith, N. (2003a) A quirky progressive? A corpus-based exploration of the will + be + -ing construction in recent and present day British English. In: Archer et al., Proceedings of Corpus Linguistics 2003. UCREL Technical Papers 16. 714-723.

Smith, N. (2003b) Changes in modals and semi-modals of strong obligation and epistemic necessity in recent British English. In: Facchinetti et al., Modality in contemporary English, Mouton de Gruyter. 241-266.

Smith, N. (2005) A corpus-based investigation of recent change in the use of the progressive in British English. PhD, Lancaster.

Smith, N. and G. Leech (2001) Grammatical change in recent written English, based on the FLOB and LOB corpora. ICAME paper.


[1] The LLC is the spoken part of the Survey of English Usage Corpus, founded by Randolph Quirk in 1959. It contains 510,576 words of 1960s spoken English, is prosodically annotated, and has been used — and continues to be used — by many scholars for their research.

[2] ICE-GB is composed of both spoken and written material from the 1990s. It contains textual markup, and is fully grammatically annotated. All the sentences/utterances in the corpus are assigned a tree structure.

[3] PU=parse unit, CL=clause, main=main, SU=subject, NP=noun phrase, NPHD=NP head, PRON=pronoun, pers=personal, VB=verbal, VP=verb phrase, MVB=main verb, V=verb, montr=monotransitive, OD=direct object, depend=dependent, dem=demonstrative, cop=copular, CS=Subject Complement, AJP=adjective phrase, prd=predicative, AJHD=adjective head, ingp=ing participle. » TOSCA/ICE Grammar.

[4] While the grammar that underlies the ICE-GB parsing (Quirk et al. 1985) conceives of Verb Phrases as only containing verbs (see Figure 2), in the proposed research the focus will be on the ‘extended VP’, i.e. a verb+dependents, as already noted.

[5] In this connection one of the evaluators of the ESRC project under which DCPSE was developed, commented that “The DCPSE is a resource waiting to be exploited.” Another wrote: “This is a highly impressive project. The research team at UCL have produced an important, timely and welcome dataset for an exploration of recent lexical and (morpho)syntactic change in British English.” The ESRC rating was ‘outstanding research’.

This page last modified 1 December, 2016 by Survey Web Administrator.