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Complex extractions in a diachronic perspective

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Chapter Summary

This paper deals with the structure and usage of extractions in historical English texts. Based on a corpus of 1.4 million words covering the language from Old English to the present day, it concentrates on how complex extractions are realized in terms of multiple embedding and multiple fronting. Apart from some purely descriptive work, including an account of common subtypes, the aim is to investigate the recursive power of these constructions in actual usage, and to determine how well their different variants fit into selected grammatical frameworks. The results of the study show that complex extractions have been part of the English language throughout its history. Yet, these constructions, realized by means of either relativization or topicalization, turn out to be rather infrequent, and clearly more so than the work of many grammarians suggests. While theoretically unbounded in nature, they seem to be practically restricted to a complexity level of two or three, apparently due to the limiting effects of different perceptual, cognitive and stylistic factors. As regards their integration into syntactic theory, it is shown that whereas multiple embedding is a tractable structure in most contexts, multiple fronting presents problems for both generative and functional grammar, and seems best handled through the principles of dependency grammar.



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