Diachronic Analysis of Grammatical Forms and Functions in a Corpus of 16th- to 19th-Century English Grammar Books

The contents of contemporary English grammar books, such as A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Quirk et al. 1985), the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al. 2002), or the more recently published Doing English Grammar (Berry 2021) are usually organized according to parts of speech and structural elements such as phrases or clauses. Various sub-headings typically further outline, for example, different types of word class (e.g., 4. Pronouns; 4.1. Personal Pronouns; 4.2. Reflexive Pronouns). On the one hand, this modern structuring principle enhances cohesive orientation. On the other hand, the structural outline is also in line with the theoretical approach taken – functional, corpus-based etc.

This paper is a pilot study analyzing if and how Early Modern English grammarians signposted the content of their grammars through headings as cohesive devices which tie text segments together (Halliday and Hasan 1976; Fakeuade and Sharndama 2012) to “create unity of meaning” (Jambak and Gurning 2014: 61). For this purpose, a sub-corpus of these headings which will be part of the HeidelGram corpus – a representative compilation of English grammar books from the 16th until the 19th century (see e.g., Busse et al. 2020) – is compiled. Due to irregularities in typesetting, the extraction is a two-step process which relies on quantitative and qualitative methods. First, a sample of visible sign-posters in the form of section headings, which indicate to the reader what the subsequent section will be about, are identified, extracted, and quantitatively evaluated. Based on this evaluation, a larger sample is extracted in a second step for further analysis. Other types of extratextual elements such as boilerplates and notes in margins are not considered. Intratextual cohesive markers, such as topic sentences, and historiated initials are also excluded.

Based on this sample data, a diachronic analysis of the terminology used to describe grammatical categories and phenomena is performed using standard corpus linguistic tools such as WordHoard (2004-2020) which is used to track changes and salience of word-forms over time, and WMatrix (Rayson 2009) to determine key references to grammatical categories. Using modern grammatical terminology from the most commonly consulted books on English grammar (i.e., Quirk et al. 1985, Biber et al. 2002) as a baseline, we shall describe the lexico-grammatical strategies of signposting in Early Modern English grammars, thus reconstructing the development of fields of study such as morphology or syntax, and study genre conventions of English grammars in long-term diachrony. Based on this dataset of forms and functions of headings in this particular genre, we determine what grammatical categories and phenomena were most salient from the grammarians’ perspective at the time, and how their centrality and representation changed diachronically.

Ultimately, this pilot study will help us in operationalizing grammatical terminology throughout time. In a follow-up study, the full grammar texts will be analyzed for their references to grammatical categories and phenomena, which will further expand the diachronic form to function mapping.

Keeping in line with the theme of the conference of whether corpus linguistics is a new normal, we portray how corpus linguistic tools enable us to efficiently and rapidly look for forms and functions in historical texts over long periods of time rather than time-consuming manual close reading.


Berry, Roger. 2021. Doing English Grammar: Theory, Description and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, Douglas, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech. 2002. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Busse, Beatrix, Kirsten Gather, and Ingo Kleiber. 2020. “A Corpus-Based Analysis of Grammarians’ References in 19th-Century British Grammars.” In Variation in Time and Space: Observing the World Through Corpora, edited by Anna Cermakova and Markéta Malá. Diskursmuster - Discourse Patterns 20. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Fakeuade, Gbenga and Emmanuel C. Sharndama. 2012. “A Comparative Analysis of Variations in Cohesive Devices in Professional and Popularized Legal Text.” British Journal of Arts and Social Sciences 4(2): 300-318.

Halliday, Michael A. K., and Ruqaiya Hassan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London and New York: Longman. Jambak, Vany T., and Busmin Gurning. 2014. “Cohesive Devices Used in the Headline News of the Jakarta Post.” Linguistica 3(1): 58-71.

Rayson, Paul. 2009. Wmatrix: a web-based corpus processing environment, Computing Department, Lancaster University. Available at http://ucrel.lancs.ac.uk/wmatrix/.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. Harlow: Longman.

WordHoard. 2004–2020. WordHoard: An Application for the close reading and scholarly analysis of deeply tagged text. Available at http://wordhoard.northwestern.edu/userman/index.html.