Corpus Pattern Analysis: verbs vs. nouns
Thursday 5 February 14.15-16
Room 6 PAM
In this talk, I focus on some of the differences in function and meaning between nouns and verbs, as revealed by corpus analysis. The grammatical framework used is based on Halliday's "slot and filler" approach of the 1960s, which has proven more useful for lexical analysis than other approaches such as generative grammar. (See Halliday 1961 "Categories of the Theory of Grammar".) A useful starting point is that the central and typical function of nouns is to create referring expressions – terms that either refer to objects in the world or denote abstract concepts. The central and typical function of verbs, on the other hand, is to create propositions, in which nouns and noun phrases play roles that are mediated by a verb. According to the Theory of Norms and Exploitations (Hanks, 1994, 2004, 2013), a verb has only meaning potential (not meaning per se) until it is put in context. There is no 'semantic invariable' that is common to all normal uses of a verb such as blow. 'A gale was blowing', 'They blew up the bridge', 'He blew his nose', and 'She blew the whistle on government malpractice' have little or nothing in common, but all four sentences represent realizations of conventional lexico-syntactic patterns of English.
A consequence of this is that quite different questions must be asked about nouns from verbs, and quite different apparatuses are required for corpus analysis of the two categories. If shower is used as a noun, we can ask, how many different kinds of shower are there – rain showers, snow showers, spring showers, bathroom showers, etc. – and what distinctive properties or common features do they have? On the other hand, if shower is used as a verb, relevant question are prompted by the collocates in the various clause roles in relation to the verb: Is it normal to say in English, "It was showering all afternoon"? Or we might notice the frequency of patterns with certain prepositions, and ask, Who showers what on whom? Who showers whom with what? What, if any is the semantic and syntagmatic relationship between these two prepositional structures?
In this way, we can inch our way painfully towards compiling an inventory of patterns of word uses that is already available to the unconscious minds of most users of the language.