III: A Glimpse of the Past: Panel Research from Archival Material

Exploiting Convention: Lifespan Change and Generational Incrementation in the Development of Cleft Constructions

William Standing and Peter Petre


In summer 2019, an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal by Heather Mac Donald, in a reaction to Trump’s political opponents who have accused him of racist language, denies that Trump often uses racial categories in his speech. Mac Donald then continues with a cleft construction: “It is the media and Democratic leaders who routinely characterize individuals and groups by race and issue race-based denunciations of large parts of the American polity” (Mac Donald 2019). Mac Donald’s quote is a typical illustration of how cleft constructions are used in strategic rhetorical writing: even while the article is an opinion piece, the use of a cleft almost inevitably has the effect of lending credibility, adding factuality even, to an otherwise very contentious statement which reverses common beliefs. However, such rhetorical uses were not always as prominent in the cleft’s usage. More specifically, the 17th century has been identified as an important period of change for cleft constructions (Patten 2012). In this chapter, we argue that the qualitative changes the construction underwent in this period led to an increased use of the cleft as a rhetorical device. We present evidence that individual writers adapted to these changes to differing degrees, depending on the interplay of social and cognitive factors. Cognitively, growing exposure to non-canonical cleft types in the experience of individuals is assumed to have contributed to growing value awareness, which in turn motivated changes in usage over the lifespan. Socially, the potential of change appears to be kept in check by membership of specific communities of practice, in particular centred around university education. As many of the rhetorical uses of cleft constructions had been available as pragmatic implicatures from the start, their increase might be thought of as merely mirroring a stylistic development. The combination of generational change and change across the lifespan, however, points to a more general increase in schematicity of the cleft construction beyond mere shifts in stylistic preferences.

In Section 6.2, we describe the methodology behind the data collection and establish clear working definitions of key concepts such as information structure and the if-cleft construction. Section 6.3 presents the results of our analysis, with a focus on generational and individual changes in the relation between focus and topic on the one hand, and newness or givenness of information on the other, changes which lead to an enhanced rhetorical value of the cleft. In Section 6.4, we discuss the results. Our findings support a strong relationship between the processing of syntactic structures and educational background. We also present, in support of the idea of a shift in the cleft’s cognitive representation, evidence from a novel type of lifespan change, which we would like to call ‘contextually constrained age-grading’, a type of agegrading that only occurs at a time when a certain linguistic structure is in flux. Section 6.5 concludes the chapter.

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