Comparative & Superlative Adjectives and Textual Frequency Laura Teddiman University of Alberta AACL – March 13, 2008
Talk Structure • Background • The Current Study • Methodology • Results • Entire BNC • Breakdown by subcorpora • Newspapers, Spoken • Discussion & Conclusions
Introduction - The Basics • Adjectives: positive, comparative, superlative • happy, happier, happiest • Fast, faster, fastest • periphrastic: more, most • more intelligent, most intelligent
Introduction - Markedness • Linguistic elements exist relative to each other: • Unmarked: considered to be more common and/or less complex • Marked: less common and/or more complex Keep in mind: the “notion of markedness as a type of asymmetry” (Croft, 1990: 64)
Introduction – Markedness We expect that unmarked values will be as frequent, or more so, than marked values in text counts (Greenberg, 1966)
Brings us to the assertion… • Greenberg (1966): Degree (adjective) positive < comparative, superlative Rephrase: Comparative and superlative adjectives are marked with respect to positive adjectives, but unmarked with respect to each other.
The Current Study • Examines textual frequencies of broad classes of comparative & superlative adjectives • This is a study about [ajc] and [ajs] • Data from the British National Corpus (BNC) • written & spoken subcorpora
Methods • Used Mark Davies’ VIEW website • Chart & List options • Queried the BNC by tags • Searched for [ajc] & [ajs] tags
[ajc] • 1,885.82/million words • Top 20 (freq./million):
[ajs] • 871.67/million • Top 20 (freq./million)
The story so far • Comparative [ajc] vs. Superlative [ajs]: difference of 1014.15/million words in tagged usage. • Across the BNC, comparative adjectives are more frequently occurring than superlative adjectives (t(38) = 2.32, p = .026). • Observation: Much sharper drop-off in [ajs] category in frequency after best (best 260, latest, 65; vs. further 215, better 208)
How do related forms compare? • Superlative best is the most frequent of all the words tagged as [ajc] or [ajs]… so what about comparisons between related pairs?
Adjectival Activity by Subcorpus • BNC covers a number of different registers • How does activity break down?
Newspapers – Most frequently used • Overall: • Comparative: better <2459>, further <2130>, higher <1470> • Superlative: best <4449>, latest <1935>, biggest <1708> • Sports: • Comparative: better <358>, further <178>, worse <81> • Superlative: best <955>, biggest <194>, latest <187> • Tabloids: • Comparative: better <136>, worse <74>, further <61> • Superlative: best <322>, biggest <165>, latest <129>
better - best • Best – <thing 627, interests 509, ever 505, friend 443, wishes 127> • In the newspaper: best known, best players, best buys, best remembered, best actress, best rated… • better – <than4414, feel 592, understanding 255, worse 214…>
bigger – biggest • biggest <world’s 306, ever 255, Britain’s 248, single 140, problem 127, Europe’s 116> • World’s Biggest, Britain’s biggest, Europe’s biggest • bigger <much 291, even 178, better 116>
Summary • For both bigger – biggest and better – best, the superlative forms are heavily preferred in newspaper text.
Spoken usage - briefly • Comparative adjectives are more common than superlative adjectives • Superlative adjectives are most common in scripted, televised speech, but are never more common than comparatives • TV documentaries, broadcast news programs • Comparative adjectives quite common in lectures, demonstrations, debates
General Discussion • English comparative forms are generally used more frequently than superlative forms in the BNC • In cases where the pattern is reversed, examination of the word forms may reveal patterns underlying usage • Frequency of adjective use & type of adjective used varies by register • Importance of register should not be overlooked
General Conclusions • If we accept that textual frequency is one of the criteria for establishing markedness, then results suggest that, in English, superlative adjectives are marked with respect to comparative adjectives. • The degree to which superlative forms are marked varies by text type Degree (adjectives) positive < comparative < superlative
Parting Thoughts • What role is played by constructions? • the ______’s biggest • the best _______. • How should fixed expressions be treated in frequency counts? • E.g., Claridge (2007) removed 162 instances of frozen expressions from a study of superlative adjectives in the spoken demographic subcorpus (e.g., if worst comes to worst).
References • Claridge, C. (2007). The Superlative in Spoken English. In: Facchinetti, Roberta (ed.), Corpus Linguistics twenty-five years on. Selected papers of the twenty-fifth International Conference on English Language Research on Computerised Corpora. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 121-148. • Croft, W. (1990). Markedness in typology. Chapter 4 of W. Croft, Typology and Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 63-94. • Greenberg (1966). Language Universals, with special reference to feature hierarchies. Janua Linguarum, Series Minor, 59. The Hague, Mouton.