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Branching out:. a diachronic prototype approach to the development of the English absolute Nikki van de Pol Prof. dr. Hubert Cuyckens KU Leuven KU Leuven FWO - Flanders. Structure of the talk. Theoretical background The absolute construction Prototype theory Data – Methodology Data

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branching out

Branching out:

a diachronic prototype approach to the development of the English absolute

Nikki van de Pol Prof. dr. Hubert CuyckensKU Leuven KU LeuvenFWO - Flanders

structure of the talk
Structure of the talk
  • Theoretical background
      • The absolute construction
      • Prototype theory
  • Data – Methodology
      • Data
      • Methodology
  • Results
      • The development of the AC prototype
      • The prototype-network of the PDE AC
  • Conclusion
  • References
the absolute construction ac
The Absolute Construction (AC)
  • The public legal obstacle having been removed, however, caution required that the final lifting of the ban depend upon the Law Society changing its rules. (BNC, Solicitors' partnerships: the law in practice. 1992)
  • But with Niki and Andre working at the ministry of finance, what else could I do? (Leuven Drama Corpus, The Duel, 1968)
  • non-finiteconstruction
  • predicate + (pro)nominal subject
  • twomain types: augmented (2) orunaugmented (1)
  • wide range of semantic relations
prototype theory rosch 1975 cuyckens 1991 geeraerts 1997
Prototype theory(Rosch 1975 , Cuyckens 1991, Geeraerts 1997)
  • Categories are not uniform entitieswithidenticalmembers, butthey are made up of a number of overlappigsubcategoriesthat all share different sets of features witheachother and thusconstitute a ‘familyresemblance’.
  • Members of a category are called ‘prototypical’ whenthey display a high degree of representativeness of a givencategory. They are at the center of a category.
  • The occurrence of non-prototypicalmember(s), i.e. members in the margin, which are notveryrepresentative, oftenleads to the existence of fuzzyboundaries.
prototype theory 2
Prototype theory (2)


Cf. Traugott & Trousdale 2013: 25: ‘partiallysanctionedextensions of anexistingconventionalizedconstructionmay over time becomefullysanctionedinstances of a more general, schematic, construction, which has changed as a result of the speaker/hearer’sexperiencewithlanguage’

Thisapproach is not

onlyuseful to representsemanticcategories, butalso to representsyntacticcategories, especiallywhenvieweddiachronically (Geeraerts 1997)

  • Corpus-based research
  • OE + ME (… - 1500) : ca. 750 ACs
      • YCOE corpus
  • EModE + LModE (1500-1914): ca. 5,500 ACs
      • most registers: PENN parsed corpora of English
      • poetry: personalselection of poems
      • near spoken language (LModEonly): direct speech taggedfragmentsfrom the Old Bailey Corpus
  • PDE (1968-1994): ca. 4,000 ACs
      • most registers: BNC
      • Drama: Leuven drama corpus
  • Search methods
      • For YCOE and Penn: used the corpus’sparsing system; searchedforAC-tags and filtered out wrong codingsmanually
      • For the others: read the entire subcorpus and filtered out ACsmanually
  • Establishforeachperiod
      • The most prototypical kind of AC withregard to structural (case, augmentation, predicate type) as well as semanticproperties
      • New and disappearing subtypes
      • Most important changes
  • Establish the resulting relations between the AC’s prototype structure and those of relatedconstructions

Adverbial relations


(3) And trust me, if Snape's cloak hadn't caught fire and broken my eye contact, I would have succeeded. Even with Snape muttering his little countercurse. (Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s stone, 2001)

(4) With a possible diagnosis like Marburg hanging over your head, every weird pain, tummy gurgle, or itch becomes an omen., access 28-07-2014)


(5) With the tongue dead and gone, the parasite settles in and replaces the lost tongue with its own body. (, access 13-02-2014)

(6) With Robert still fast asleep Victoria confronts Michael about helping his mother. (//, access 20-08-2012)


Elaboration relations

Postmodifier/relativeclause-like:modification of a phrase

(7) Several small incidents, one revolving around a pop concert, incited more students into action. (BNC, 1991)

Quasi-coordinate:addsinformationonsentence level, equivalent to and-coordinatedsentence(e.g. exemplification, addition, etc.)

(8) It had eight eyes placed as is expressed in the Plate, the two middlemost in the top being the largest. (PPCMBE, 1736) = and the two middlemost in the top are the largest.

(9) "Ultimately, it got a little disheartening, with Guillermo obviously feeling it more than anybody else.” ( 18-10-2012)= and Guillermo obviously felt it more than anybody else

old english
Old English

(11)…& sonaymbanesgæresfæcdeadumhirewereheowearðwydewe. (YCOE)

And soon in about one year's time, her husband dead, she became a widow.

(12)Hieheorahereontutodældon; oþeræt ham beonheoralond to healdanne, oðer ut faran to winnanne. (YCOE)

They split their army in two , one part to be keeping hold of their homeland, the other part to be going out in order to win.

(13)Soðliceþaæfen com him twelfummid him. (YCOE)

When evening came, Jesus arrived, the Twelve with him.

(14) Se ðerixaðonecnyssemidþamælmihtiganfæder. & þamhalgangaste.hiðryonanregodcundnyssewunigendebutananginne & ende. (YCOE)

He then ruled in eternity with the almighty father and the holy ghost, the three of them dwelling in divine nature, without beginning or end. (= AND the three…)

(10) 7 gewordenumrestedægeheongannongesamnungelæran(YCOE)And when the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue


The number of AC subtypes is rather


  • The case is alwaysdative(/instrumental)
  • The predicate types are restricted to present and past participles
  • The semanticuse is adverbial, mostly temporal
  • The AC is unaugmented
  • There are some hints at the development of newpredicate types, butverymarginalstill:
  • TwoadjectivalpredicateACs, in both cases with ‘dead’ cf. analogywith the (resultant) state meaning of the past participle (French: ilest mort  no distinction between adj. and past participle)
  • two infinitive predicate ACs, both from the same sentence (! No infinitive in the Latin original)
  • one prepositional phrase predicate

AdjP, Inf, PrepP



Present &Past participle





There are already a few cases in whichanelaboration reading mightbepossiblebut none

of these allowfor a quasi-coordinate readingexceptfortwo nom. ACs (dativeseems to blockquasi-coordinateuse)

In LOE ‘secondary’ ACsdevelop in thenominative and accusative cases, this is anaturalevolution, alsoobserved in otherIndo-Europeanlanguages (Bauer 2000)

Augmentation is very rare in Old English

Onlyfourinstanceswerefound: twowith‘with’ and twowith ‘after’

In LOE past and present participles are stillbyfar the most commonpredicate types

middle english

(15) And þe duke of Lancastirlondid at Rauenesporne,…, no man makyngresistens.(YCOE)

(18)… an horrybullfyreschallaryseatþesonnegoyngdowne… (YCOE)

(16) Theihaue o cherch, þe women aboue, þe men be þe ground. (YCOE)

(17) Aftirþisdoo, Kyng Richard sat at mete at Westminster,… (YCOE)


NP, AdvP


AdjP, Inf, PrepP

Present participle





  • The dative case is lost from the Englishlanguage in the ME period
  • The nominativebecomes the default case for the AC
  • Whenno case canbediscerned the AC is traditionallyconsiderednominative
  • The accusative/oblique case remainspossiblefor the AC butitsuse is rather infrequent

Past participle

  • In ME present participlesbecome the mostfrequent predicate type
  • Past participlesbecomesomewhatless frequent
  • AdjPs, Infs and PrepPsbecome more common
  • AdvPs and NPs are newpredicate types
  • Adverbialmeaningsremain the norm
  • Elaborationuses do increase in frequency
  • augmentation, especiallywith-augmentationbecame more common
  • Due to scarcity of data, and perhapsrelianceon the parsing in the corpus, otheraugmentation types werestill few (e.g. after, at,though); butaccording to Visser (1973) therewerenumerouspossibilites (+- 20) and augmentation was fairlycommon in thisperiod.


  • Most ACsaugmentedby a preposition are reanalysed as/replacedbygerundsfromEModEonwards


modern english
Modern English

(19) We ran on cautiously, and the fog lifting a little, we found we were in sight of St Catherine's lighthouse, Isle of Wight. (PPCMBE)

(20) I cannot be so unthankfull as to leave you unsaluted in thes few lines, you havinge given mee the first occasione by your kinde letter. (PPCEME)



AdjP, Inf, NP, AdvP



Present participle




  • In ModE the ACsbecome more evenly spread across the different predicate types
  • EspeciallyforPrepPpredicatesthere is a clearincrease
  • Present participlepredicatesremain the most frequent
  • Perfectiveparticiplesform a newpredicate type
  • Augmentationotherthanwithbecomesvery rare (4%-1%)
  • With-augmentationcontinues to rise in relativefrequency
  • unaugmentedACsremain the default case
  • Withregard to semantics, elaborationuses continue to increase (quasi-coordinateelaborationuses as well as non quasi-coordinateones)
  • Temporal usesretaintheirfrequency
  • Core adverbialusesdecline in relativefrequency
  • As personalpronounsubjectsbecome more rare, it is seldompossible to determine the case of the AC
  • Clearlyobliqueuses are rare butremain in use




present day english

(21) But anti-smoking laws have been in the news quite frequently, with newly implemented indoor smoking bans taking effect all across the UK and the U.S. (, access 30-06-2014)



Past participlePrepP




Present participle




  • elaborationuses keep gaining in frequency (quasi-coordinate as well as postmodifierlike types)
  • this happens at the expense of CCC-uses
  • temporal usesremainvery frequent as well
  • Notmuchchange in predicate types
  • Present participlesremain the most frequent
  • PrepPs and past participlessharesecond place
  • Infinitivalpredicatesbecomemuchrarer
  • In PDE, personalpronounsubjects have becomevery rare, but in the few cases werethey do occur, we canseethatanoblique subject remainspossible in the margins.
  • With-augmentationbecomes even more frequent and outnumbersunaugmenteduses in informal and spoken use (van de Pol & Cuyckens 2014)
  • Other types of augmentationremainpossiblebut are verymarginal

AdjP, AdvP

NP, Perf. Partc.


The prototype-network of the PDE AC: overlap withothercategories & place in largerprototype-categories






vg ac overlap
VG-AC overlap
  • You will not mind my using this word (PPCMBE, 1859)
  • These three bourgeois elementswilleliminatethemselveswithout ourhaving to lift a finger.(KU Leuven drama corpus, 1970s)
  • Life was fraught enough for the Stevenses as it was, with the constant care of Jennifer, without her adding to their problems (BNC, 1990)
  • …a war in which the objectives can be er successfully attained erwithout them changing … (BNC, 1985-1994)
  • Disks, no,Yeah, I know, but with them not knowing, friend's because there's so much disk swopping. (BNC, 1985-1994)
  • You are pointing the finger at him, them being involved in the murders. (BNC, 1990)
  • But then I think of my big -- fat -- mother, going out there every morning and yelling at the Gardner and the postman, with this -- this -- poodle clutched in her arms. And she and this poodle yelling at everyone!(KU Leuven drama corpus, 1968)








ac fa overlap
AC-FA overlap
  • I was as impatient to make these lovers a visit, having already made a friendship with Caesar… (PPCEME, 1688)
  • but they being heavy unweildy Creatures, and we assaulting them before and behind, and all round, generally conquer'd them in the end, (PPCMBE, 1744)
  • They being partly behind him, they winked the eye, pointed the finger to each other, …(PPCMBE, 1805)
  • We walked on, and kept in conversation until we reached within a few yards of Crampton Court, at the lower end of Dame-street, I being outside, and he on my right hand. (PPCMBE, 1826)
  • … it being too late to engage that Night, they made all the necessary Preparations to give the Grecians Battle the next Day. (PPCMBE, 1707)








pp ac overlap
PP-AC overlap
  • … and the standard bearer had a pole with shields. (adapted from BNC, 1994)
  • … and the standard bearer had a pole with shields on it. (BNC, 1994)
  • You could have warmed it up with a hot water bottle or a heat pad don't leave it there with the baby in it, but you can certainly warm the bed first. (BNC, 1992)
  • With business confidence in Manila at rock bottom, President Aquino is in a specially weak position. (BNC, 1985-1994)
  • “Oh yes,” said Tealtaoich, his eyes on the shadowy forest and the struggling Tree Spirits.(BNC, 1993)
  • She gazed into the darkness, eyes dry and burning.(BNC, 1991)



the larger ing clause category k nig van der auwera 1990
The largering-clausecategory(König & van der Auwera 1990)
  • The AC categoryalso fits into a largerfamily-resemblancestructure of -ingclauses in general
  • Thisstructure is centeredaround the free adjunct as most typicalmember
  • All the othering-clausesdifferfrom the free adjunct in oneparticular respect e.g. ACs are basically free adjunctswithanexpressed subject; progressives (i.e. ‘predicativeuse’) do notdiffermuchfrom free adjunctsexceptthatthey are involved in primaryinstead of secondarypredication

object nexus


adverbial SS use (i.e. free adjunct)




  • Itmaybeuseful to view certainsyntacticcategoriesfrom a prototype-theoretical point of view
  • The syntacticcategory of the AC becomes more akin to a typical prototype category over time as severallayersfrom more prototypical to more marginalmembersdevelop and fuzzyboundarieswithothercategoriescomeabout
  • Thisresults in a closer bond withotherconstruction types in the language, whicharguablyaided the AC’s survival in English (↔ otherGermaniclanguages) (van de Pol, Petré & Cuyckens 2014)
  • The factthatsomeolderreference grammars stillretain the OE prototype and do notrecognize the changed PDE AC categorymayexplainwhyit is stillsometimesarguedthat a PDE AC does notexist (e.g. Ruppel 2013)
conclusion 2
Conclusion (2)
  • The most important changeswere:
      • The rise of elaborationusesnext to the originallytypicaladverbialuses
  • The increasinguse of with-augmentation to the point thatit has developedintoanoptionalAC-marker, ratherthan a typicalaugmentor in PDE
  • The increasingdiversity of possiblepredicate types
  • Bauer, Brigitte. 2000. Archaic syntax in Indo-European. The spread of transitivity in Latin and French. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Berent, G. P. 1975. 'English absolutes in functional perspective'. In R.E. Grossman et al. eds. Papers from the parasession on functionalism: A paravolume to CLS 20, 10-33.
  • BNC: The British National Corpus, later part 20th century, 100 m words. Department of Linguistics, University of Oxford. ( ID=intro).
  • Cuyckens, Hubert. 1991. The semantics of spatial prepositions in Dutch: a cognitive-linguistic exercise. PhD-thesis. Antwerp.
  • Geeraerts, Dirk. 1997. Diachronic Prototype semantics: A contribution to Historical Lexicology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Helsinki Corpus of English Texts: Diachronic and Dialectal, 750-1700, 1.5 m words. Department of English, University of Helsinki. Third edition, ( hc/).
  • Huber, Magnus; Nissel, Magnus; Maiwald, Patrick; Widlitzki, Bianca. 2012. The Old Bailey Corpus. Spoken English in the 18th and 19th centuries., (access 04-06-2013).
  • Kohnen, Thomas. 2004. Text, textsorte, sprachgeschichte: Englische Partizipial- und Gerundialkonstruktionen 1100 bis 1700. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.
  • König, Ekkehard and van derAuwera, Johan. 1990. 'Adverbial participles, gerunds and absolute constructions in the languages of Europe. In Johannes Beclert, Giuluano Bernini and Claude Budart (eds.). 1990. Toward a Typology of European Languages. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 337-355.
references 2
References (2)
  • Kortmann, B. 1991. Free adjuncts and absolutes in English: problems of control and interpretation. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Kortmann, B. 1995. 'Adverbial participial clauses in English'. In M. Haspelmath & E. König eds. 1995. Converbs in a cross-linguistic perspective. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 189-237.
  • Stump, G. T. 1985. The semantic variability of absolute constructions. Dordrecht: Reidel.
  • PPCEME: The Penn-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Early Modern English, 1500-1710, 1.7 m words. Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania. CD-ROM, first edition, (
  • PPCMBE: The Penn-Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Modern British English, 1700-1914, 1 m words. Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania. CD-ROM, first edition, (
  • Quirk, R., et al. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language.London: Longman.
  • Rosch, Eleanor. 1975. 'Cognitiverepresentationsofsemanticcategories. ‘ Journal of Experimental Psychology 104. 192-233.
  • Ross, Charles Hunter. 1893. ‘The Absolute Participle in Middle and Modern English’. PMLA 8.3. 245-302.
  • van de Pol, Nikki and Cuyckens, Hubert. 2013a. ‘In absolute detail: the development of English absolute constructions from adverbial to additional-context marker’. ICAME. Santiago de Compostella, 22-26 May 2013.
references 3
References (3)
  • van de Pol, Nikki and Cuyckens, Hubert. 2013b. ‘Gradualness in change in Englishaugmentedabsolutes.’ In: GiacaloneRamat A., Mauri C., Molinelli P. (Eds.), Synchrony and Diachrony: A dynamic interface. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • van de Pol, Nikki and Cuyckens, Hubert. 2014. 'The diffusion of Englishabsolutes: A diachronic register study.' In Davidse K., Gentens C., Ghesquière L. and Vandelanotte L. (eds). Corpus interrogation and grammaticalpatterns. Studies in Corpus Linguistics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • van de Pol, N., Petré, P., Cuyckens, H. (2014). Why is there a Present-day English absolute?. CoLiDi. Gent, Belgium, 27-28 February 2014.
  • Visser, FrederikusTheodorus. 1973. An historical syntax of the English language. Leiden: Brill.