Grammatical change in recent English (1961-1991) : a corpus-based investigation

The project's main goal was to investigate recent changes in English grammar during the period 1961-1991. Its secondary goal was to develop a new methodology for tracking changes in the language, using comparable or 'matching' corpora of text samples, and employing tagging software and grammar-sensitive search tools. A third goal was the provision of the part-of-speech tagged matching corpora for general distribution to the research community. The matching corpora used were the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen (LOB) Corpus of written British English (1961) and the Freiburg-LOB (FLOB) Corpus of written British English (1991). Preliminary comparisons were also made with matching American English corpora, and with approximately matching spoken data from the 1960s and the 1990s. Findings include (a) a significant decline in the use of modal auxiliaries, especially less common modal auxiliaries such as 'shall' and 'ought to'; (b) a significant increase in the use of so-called 'semi-modals' such as 'have to', 'have got to', 'need to' and 'want to'; (c) a significant increase in the use of the present progressive, modal progressive, and progressive passive; (d) a significant decline in the use of the passive. Further work on comparable corpora has confirmed that most of these findings are also observable American English. The corpora are being archived and distributed by the Oxford Text Archive. Further research in this programme has subsequently been undertaken with the support of the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust.

Principal investigator
Professor Geoffrey Leech
Principal project staff
Mr Nicholas Ian Smith
Start date
Monday, February 1, 1999
Completion date
Tuesday, January 1, 2002
Source material
The corpora were originally sampled from a wide and representative range of textual material (using the BNB and Willings Press Guide) published respectively during the years 1961 and 1991. The text categories from which stratified sampling was undertaken were A - Press Reportage; B - Press editorial; C - Press reviews; D - Religious; E - Skills, Trades and Hobbies; F - Popular Lore; G - Biography, Belles Lettres, Essays; H - Miscellaneous; J - Scientific and Learned; K - General Fiction; L - Mystery & Detective Fiction; M - Science Fiction; N - Adventure and Western Fiction; P - Romance and Love Story; R - Humour. From each publication an extract of 2000+ words was sampled. Each corpus contains 500 such samples, i.e. 1 million+ word tokens in all. The taggers used were the CLAWS tagger and Template Tagger (both from UCREL, Lancaster University); the tagset of grammatical categories employed was the C8 tagset.

Mair, C., Hundt, M., Leech, G., and Smith, N. (2003), ‘Short term diachronic shifts in part-of-speech frequencies: A comparison of the tagged LOB and F-LOB corpora’, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 7: 2, 245-264.

Leech, G. (2003) ‘Modality on the move: the English modal auxiliaries 1961-1992’, in R. Facchinetti, M. Krug and F. Palmer (eds.) Modality in Contemporary English. [Topics in English Linguistics 44, General Editors: Bernd Kortmann and Elizabeth Closs Traugott] Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003.

Leech, G. (2004), ‘Recent grammatical change in English: data, description, theory’, in K. Aijmer and B. Altenberg (eds), Advances in Corpus Linguistics: Papers from the 23rd International Conference on English Language Research on Computerized Corpora (ICAME 23) Göteborg 22-26 May 2002, Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 61-81.

Smith, N. (2002), ‘Ever moving on? The progressive in recent British English’, in: Peters, P., Collins, P. and Smith, A. (2002), New frontiers of corpus research: Papers from the Twenty First International Conference on English Language Research on Computerized Corpora. Amsterdam: 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: D. Archer, P. Rayson, A. Wilson and T. McEnery (eds). Proceedings of the Corpus Linguistics 2003 Conference. Lancaster University: UCREL Technical Papers Vol. 16, 714-723.

Smith, N. (2003b), ‘Changes in modals and semi-modals of strong obligation and epistemic necessity in recent British English’, in: R. Facchinetti, M. Krug and F. R. Palmer, Modality in Contemporary English, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 241-266.