English Language and Linguistics Special Issue on Genitive Variation in English

ELL 18 2Blog post written by John Payne and Eva Berlage

Everything you ever wanted to know about the genitive alternation in English! The choice that speakers have between the s-genitive and the of-genitive (e.g. the production’s new director vs the new director of the production) has been the subject of much detailed research, starting with historical studies in the earlier part of the twentieth century and culminating in recent large-scale synchronic studies using modern statistical techniques. It is, as Anette Rosenbach suggests in the volume, “arguably the best researched of all syntactic alternations in English”.

This special edition, arising from a workshop organised by John Payne (Manchester) and Eva Berlage (Hamburg) at the ISLE conference in Boston in 2011, collects together four new papers. The first, by Anette Rosenbach, is above all an authoritative and masterly synopsis of all previous work on the alternation, and will be an invaluable resource for both those who are interested in the methodologies which exist for analysing syntactic variation, and for those who have a specific interest in the genitive alternation itself. However, beyond this, it also raises interesting and controversial questions which should be addressed by future research.

Factors such as the animacy, weight and definiteness of the “possessor” (e.g. the production in the production’s new director), as well as the nature of the semantic relation holding between the possessor and “possessee”, are well-known to play an important role in speaker choice. The remaining three papers add new dimensions by undertaking detailed quantitative studies of previously under-investigated aspects of the alternation. Ehret, Wolk and Szmrecsanyi, using historical data from the ARCHER corpus, expand the discussion of weight by comparing different methods of assessing weight, in particular the use of word and character counts. Their research shows that length does not have a linear effect on the distribution of the s– and of-genitive. The authors also break new ground including a detailed study of the role that rhythmic effects might play. While the so-called Principle of Rhythmic Alternation (following Schlüter 2005: 18) so far only comes out as minor determinant of the variation, the paper raises the question of whether to include other operationalisations of phonological variables for a fuller understanding of the variation. In Jankowski & Tagliamonte’s contribution, there is an innovative focus  on sociolinguistic factors. In particular, the authors investigate the distribution of the s-genitive and of-genitive in vernacular Canadian English, basing their research on socially stratified corpora that represent data from speakers of all age groups. Their research shows that use of the s-genitive has been growing with possessors that represent collectives or organisations, a trend that might also be spreading to place possessors. The volume concludes with a paper by Payne and Berlage on the “niche” role that the less frequently used oblique genitive, the construction we see in examples such as a friend of the director’s, plays in the alternation, providing a new quantitative analysis of the factors which make this construction either a forced (or preferred) choice in comparison with the two main constructions. A qualitative comparison of the s-genitive, of-genitive and oblique genitive finally reveals that the semantic relations represented by the oblique genitive  are as subset of those covered by the s-genitive which, again, are a subset of those available to the of-genitive.

Explore the entire special issue of English Language and Linguistics here

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