Defining relatives

David Denison, Marianne Hundt

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This article uses a case study of scientific English from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries to test the traditional demarcation between restrictive and nonrestrictive adnominal relatives and to reconsider appropriate methods for analyzing such historical data. After an initial classification of some 1,160 clauses from the ARCHER corpus using the traditional dichotomy, alternative proposals for analyzing relative clauses are reviewed in the light of problematic examples. The concept of "aspective" relatives is adopted: those having most of the formal and pragmatic hallmarks of restrictive relatives while not strictly restrictive in the set-theoretic sense. We identify these with the clauses in present-day English that are not restrictive but that Huddleston, Pullum, and Peterson include under the heading "integrated." We add a fourth, minor type, "continuative." Nevertheless our data present problems even for a four-way classification. We demonstrate how some analytic difficulties are the result of changes in text-type-specific style and conventions over time, plus general diachronic change, but also that some examples genuinely resist hard-and-fast classification. We therefore treat our classes as overlapping bands on a one-dimensional gradient, testing the revised classification in detail on our seventeenth-century data. The overlaps are less numerous than any of the three main types (restrictive, aspective, and nonrestrictive), but they help to reduce the number of unclear cases from over a quarter of the total in our initial classification to a mere 1 percent. We distinguish carefully between vagueness (underspecified examples where the interpretation is in no doubt) and ambiguity (involving a choice between interpretations that depends on missing information). We suggest that our classification might be more widely applicable to the study of relative clauses. By and large, modern Sprachgefühl can be used cautiously alongside other, more objective tests to classify relatives in historical scientific texts-a point of more general theoretical relevance. © 2013 SAGE Publications.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-167
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of English Linguistics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


  • American English
  • British English
  • corpus linguistics
  • English grammar
  • historical linguistics
  • history of English
  • relative clause
  • scientific writing
  • stylistic variation
  • written language


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