Swimming against the tide of the Great Complement Shift

Thomas Egan, HiHm

Thursday 1 December 2011, 14.15-16, Room 489, PAM

Studies of complementation in Late Modern English, such as Fanego (1996, 1997), Vosberg (2003) and Egan (2008) have demonstrated that, while there was a degree of flexibility in the use of gerunds and infinitives (and indeed finite clauses) in the period in question, it also witnessed a steady general increase in the use of the gerund. This is one of several developments in complementation patterns that have come to be known as Great Complement Shift, a term first used in print by Rohdenburg (2006). In this presentation I trace the complementation patterns over the last three centuries of two verbs, prefer and continue, that occurred with the gerund before they came to be used with the infinitive.

From the time it first appeared in the language until the seventeenth century, prefer occurred primarily with nominal complements. In the seventeenth century it began to be used occasionally with verbal complements, at first mostly with the gerund. The to-infinitive form of complement only became common in the nineteenth century.  The data in the Corpus of Late Modern English texts (see De Smet 2005) show that in the period 1780 – 1850 the gerund outnumbered the infinitive after prefer by a margin of over ten to one. The exact opposite situation pertains in Present-day English, as is evidenced by data in such corpora as FLOB, FROWN and the BNC. Having first traced the development of prefer in Middle English and Early Modern English, I will examine the spread of the to-infinitive form of the complement at the expense of the gerund in Late Modern English and propose an explanation for this development.

The second verb I will look at is continue. In Present-day English the construction with the to-infinitive outnumbers that with the gerund by some ten to one. Thus, a random sample of 1,000 tokens of continue in the BNC yields 437 tokens of the former construction and 40 of the latter. The ratio between the two constructions was very similar (in written texts) in the eighteenth century, with 151 tokens of the to-infinitive construction in the first sub-corpus (1710-1780) of CLMET as opposed to 16 of the construction with the gerund. On the face of this evidence it would appear that we are faced with two constructions that have remained relatively stable for the part three hundred years. This picture may, however, be misleading. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed a considerable increase in the incidence of the construction with the gerund compared to that with the to-infinitive in the texts in CLMET (65 tokens compared to 213 in CLMET 1780-1850). This was followed by a sharp decrease in the second half of the century. I examine the apparent temporary advance and subsequent retreat of the continue –ing construction in the nineteenth century and compare developments in British English with those in American English, as documented in the Corpus of Historical American English.



De Smet, Hendrik. (2005). A Corpus of Late Modern English Texts. ICAME Journal, 29-82.

Egan, T. (2008). ‘Emotion verbs with to-infinitive complements: from specific to general predication’, in M. Gotti, M. Dossena, and R. Dury (eds.), Selected Papers from the Fourteenth International Conference on English Historical Linguistics (ICEHL 14), Bergamo, 21-25 August 2006. Volume I: Syntax and Morphology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 223-240

Fanego, T. (1996). ‘On the Historical Development of English Retrospective Verbs’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 97: 71-79.

Fanego, T. (1997). ‘On patterns of complementation with verbs of effort’, English Studies, 78 (1): 60-67.

Rohdenburg, G. (2006). The Role of Functional Constraints in the Evolution of the English Complementation System. In C. Dalton-Puffer, D. Kastovsky, N. Ritt & H. Schendl     (eds.), Syntax, Style and Grammatical Norms: English from 1500-2000. Bern: Peter Lang. 143-166.

Vosberg, U. (2003). ‘The role of extractions and horror aequi in the evolution of -ing-complements in Modern English’, in G. Rohdenburg and B. Mondorf (eds.), Determinants of Gammatical Variation in English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 305-327.

Publisert 10. nov. 2011 09:16 - Sist endret 10. nov. 2011 09:20