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Free adjuncts, absolutes and the what with pattern in contemporary English

The grammatical properties of the what with pattern may be seen in the context of other, more general types, of which it is a particular instance. The two relevant general types are free adjuncts and absolutes (on which see further Stump 1985, Kortmann 1991), prototypical instances of which are illustrated by (2) and (3) respectively:

(2) Having got out of the carriage, Holmes shouted for Watson.

(3) Moriarty having got out of the carriage, Holmes shouted for Watson.

The free adjunct (2) differs from the absolute (3) primarily because the former has no overt subject NP in the participial clause, while the latter does: In absolutes, the overt subject of the non-finite verb is different from the subject of the finite verb in the main clause; in free adjuncts, the covert subject of the non-finite verb is co-referential with, and controlled by, the subject of the finite verb in the main clause. This distinction also suggests that the bond between the non-finite and finite/matrix clause in (2) is stronger than that in (3) Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech & Svartvik (1985: 1120) argue that the absence of a shared subject in the two clauses of (3) are the grounds for describing such structures as absolutes. They suggest that the non-finite clauses are "not explicitly bound to the matrix clause syntactically"(Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech & Svartvik 1985: 1120), and as a result, free adjuncts may be considered more grammaticalized than absolutes (cf. Hopper & Traugott 2003: 175ff.). These differences between free adjuncts and absolutes hold for prototypical cases only; there are instances of free adjuncts whose covert subject is different from the subject of the main clause verb, and absolutes whose overt subject is coreferential with the subject of the main clause verb (Kortmann 1991: 43, 91; Quirk et al. 1985: 15.58; Rio-Rey 2002: 311).

Kortmann (1991: 7-8, 11-12) (see also Stump 1985) observes that the non-finite clauses in (2) and (3) above may be augmented by a subordinator which further specifies the relationship between the finite and non-finite clauses. For instance, simultaneity of the two processes denoted by the verbs in each clause may be indicated by the subordinator while in free adjuncts:

(4) While coming out of the carriage, Holmes shouted for Watson.

Kortmann (1991: 11) particularly observes that the items which augment absolutes and those which augment free adjuncts are in complementary distribution, as illustrated by the following:

(5) With/*While Moriarty pounding on the carriage door, Holmes discovered he was in danger.

(6) While/*With pounding on the carriage door, Holmes discovered he was in danger.

The items which typically augment absolutes are with, illustrated in (3) above, and without, as in (7):

(7) Without Moriarity noticing, Holmes signalled to Inspector Lestrade.

In addition to with(out) augmentation, there is an additional pattern available to speakers of English, namely the what with pattern, the focus of the present chapter.[1] Examples of this pattern are illustrated in (8):

(8) a. What with the gown, the limos, and all the rest, you're probably looking at about a hundred grand.

(2009 Diane Mott Davidson, Fatally Flaky; COCA)

b. In retrospect I realize I should have known that was a bad sign, what with the Raven Mockers being set loose and all.

(2009 Kristin Cast, Hunted; COCA)

c. But of course, to be fair to the girl, she wasn't herself at the Deanery, what with thinking of how Lord Hawtry's good eye had darkened when she refused his hand in marriage.

(2009 Dorothy Cannell, She Shoots to Conquer; COCA)

d. The bed was big and lonesome what with Dimmert gone.

(2009 Jan Watson, Sweetwater Run; COCA)

e. The Deloche woman was going to have one heck of a time getting rid of the place, what with the economy the way it was in Florida.

(2009 Emilie Richards, Happiness Key; COCA)

Felser & Britain (2007) consider what with absolutes to be rare in contemporary English (see also footnote 3). As illustrated by the examples in (8), what with patterns in Present Day English (PDE) can contain within them:

a. (coordinated) NPs

b. non-finite ing-clauses with an overt subject

c. non-finite ing-clauses with no overt subject[2]

d. non-finite en-clauses (with an overt subject)

e. verbless/small clauses

Kortmann (1991: 202-4) observes the following properties of what with patterns:

- the 'causality' function of what with is not restricted to absolutes; what with also occurs in prepositional phrases (e.g. (8a) above) and gerundive clauses (e.g. (8c) above).

- what with patterns occur in a particular pragmatic context, namely "if the matrix proposition denotes some non-event or negative state, or, more generally, some proposition which has certain negative implications (at least from the view of the speaker)'.

- what with patterns typically appear with coordinated lists of 'reasons', or with general extenders such as and all in (8b) above.

Huddleston & Pullum (2002: 626) consider the what with pattern to be idiosyncratic and fossilized. In their analysis, what with introduces reason adjuncts, and its idiomaticity "developed out of an otherwise almost obsolete use of what to introduce lists or coordinations, especially of PPs', noting that prepositions other than with are very rare in contemporary English, and giving an example with what between to illustrate the marginal variability.

  • [1] A further augmentation with and is possible (for instance, I was amazed that Moriarty was a ruthless criminal, and him a professor as well!); Kortmann (1991: 199) observes that in his corpus study, what with and and augmentation were both very rare, with about 1% (n=3) of all absolutes being augmented with these forms.
  • [2] Examples such as (8c) suggests that there may be an ongoing change in the complementation patterns associated with what with, since Kortmann (1991: 11) observes that free adjunct and absolute augmenters are in complementary distribution, as noted above. I return to this issue in Section 4, where the nature of the grammatical changes is explored in more detail.
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