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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Theory and Data in Cognitive Linguistics

Late Modern English

Method

For the Late Modern period, a search of CLMETEV (De Smet 2005) was undertaken. Because the corpus is not parsed, it is not possible to search for any preposition following what. In order to investigate the development of what with, a number of different searches were undertaken.

The first was a simple search for the string "what with". This returned a number of false positives of the type It's poisoned I don't know what with [COCA]; these were discounted. Each instance of the what with construction was classified based on the following complement,[1] as illustrated below:

(22) NP complements

and what with my diligent labour, and your poor mother's spinning, and your needle-work, I make no doubt we shall do better and better.

(1740, Samuel Richardson, Pamela; CLMETEV1[2])

Non-finite -ing clauses without an overt subject

Yes, I only got the order yesterday at noon; and there's three girls beside the mother; and what with trying on and matching the stuff (for there was not enough in the piece they chose first), I'm above a bit behindhand.

(1848, Gaskell, Mary Barton; CLMETEV2)

Table 1. What with constructions in the CLMETEV corpus: coordinate/listed complements

What with constructions in the CLMETEV corpus: coordinate/listed complements

Non-finite -ing clauses with an overt subject

and how, what with many being strangers coming by sea, and others being serfs fled from home, they were a nameless, masterless sort, who knew not where to seek a parish priest. (1870, Yonge, Caged Lion; CLMETEV3)

Small clauses

a concealment so complete, what with the fane in front and the trees behind, that no unsuspicious passenger could possibly have detected him.

(1834, Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii; CLMETEV2)

Mixed complements (for instance, a non-finite -ing clause with no overt subject coordinated with an NP)

What with being tired waiting so long for convoy, and the knowledge that arriving before the other West Indiamen would be very advantageous, I made up my mind that, instead of beating up into the bay again, I would run for England without protection, trusting to the fast sailing of my vessel and the guns which I had on board. (1841, Marryat, Masterman Ready; CLMETEV2)

The second search was for specific instances listed by Felser & Britain (2007) as instances of 'interrupted' what with, that is, where an adverb intervenes. (Recall that this was a feature of some of the internet data that Felser & Britain discovered). The specific strings that were searched for were what all with, what also with, what especially with, what primarily with, what now with, what just with, and what therefore with, that is, those strings which were attested in Felser & Britain (2007).

The third search was for any prepositions which were attested in the OED as occurring following what/hwat in earlier stages of the language, such as those illustrated in examples (19)-(21) above.

Results

Table 1 below gives the proportion and number of instances for each of the coordinated complement types which followed the sequence what with in CLMETEV, subdivided by a seventy-year period.

Because the focus of the discussion concerns the types of complements which may be listed after a single instance of what with, instances where what with is repeated, as in examples (23) and (24), are excluded. For similar reasons, instances with general extenders, such as and all in (25), are also excluded from the frequency counts.

(23) And what with the gipsy affair, and what with this, I could not think of going down to dinner. (1740, Samuel Richardson, Pamela; CLMETEV1)

(24) What with the arrestments on this night of the Twenty-ninth, what with those that have gone on more or less, day and night, ever since the Tenth, one may fancy what the Prisons now were. (1837, Thomas Carlyle, French Revolution; CLMETEV2)

(25) but I'm such a poor weak old body, and my head's so gone, and I'm so dazed like, what with Alice and all, that I think and think, and can do naught to help my child. (1848, Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton; CLMETEV2)

For the second search, no instances of any of the 'interrupted' sequences, that is, what all with, what also with, what especially with, what primarily with, what now with, what just with and what therefore with, were found.

For the third search, the other prepositions which occurred with what are between, by, and from, as illustrated in (26)-(28) below:

(26) What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up. (1771, Tobias Smollett, Humphrey Clinker; CLMETEV1)

(27) for in a few minutes, what by her looks, and the case itself, I found myself as much embarrassed as it was possible the lady could be herself.

(1768, Thomas Sterne, Sentimental Journey; CLMETEV1)

(28) we might there procure Hogs, Fowls, and other refreshments, Articles that we have been very sparingly supply'd with at this last Island, as the Ship's Company (what from the Constant hard duty they have had at this place, and the two free use of Woman) were in a worse state of health than they were on our first arrival. (1773, James Cook, Journal; CLMETEV1)

Such forms appeared infrequently in all three subperiods of the corpus.

Twentieth-century American English (COCA corpus)

Method

A similar method was adopted for an investigation of contemporary American English, using the COCA corpus (Davies 2008-). Here, a random sample of 500 instances of what with patterns were subject to analysis. The second and third searches (that is, for 'interrupted' what with, and for what followed by a preposition other than with such as what for and what between) were also carried out.

Results

The results of the analysis of the 500 instances of what with are illustrated in Figures 2 and 3. Unlike the results for the Late Modern English corpus, where all the instances involved co-ordination of some kind (even if only with generalized extenders such as and all), the results from the COCA corpus have been subdivided into those involving coordinated (Figure 2) and non-coordinated (Figure 3) complements. Excluding a total of 23 examples of what with one thing and another (n=17) and other idiosyncratic forms (n=6), only 52.4% of this sample of what with patterns appear in a list/coordinated structure (n=251); furthermore, some of these coordinated complements contain grammaticalized extenders (Cheshire 2006) such as and all. 'Extender' forms (what with X and everything/and all/and the like) are by definition instances of coordinate structures. However, instances

Percentage of complement types in coordinated what with constructions, COCA

Figure 2. Percentage of complement types in coordinated what with constructions, COCA

Percentage of complement types in non-coordinated what with constructions, COCA

Figure 3. Percentage of complement types in non-coordinated what with constructions, COCA

where only one explicit reason is given before the extender (for instance, what with the movie and all) outnumber instances where there is more than one explicit reason listed (for instance, what with the explosion, car chase, Ukrainians and all) by a ratio of 5:1. 'Verbless' variants (that is, those involving NP complements, or small clauses) are favoured in both coordinate and noncoordinate structures. This is consistent with the analysis of the BNC data provided by Felser & Britain (2007).[3] The second and third searches (i.e. for 'interrupted' what with, and for what followed by a preposition other than with such as what for and what between) returned no hits.

  • [1] As Table 1 shows, no en clause complements were returned from this search.
  • [2] CLMETEV1 etc. refer to the subperiods of the corpus: CLMETEV1 = 1710-1780, CLMETEV2 = 1780-1850 and CLMETEV3 = 1850-1920.
  • [3] Felser &Britain (2007) split their BNC data into what with absolute [+predicate], and what with absolute [-predicate] and examine the distribution of complements within each group. They find that what with absolutes [+predicate] typically disfavour coordination, while what with absolutes [-predicate] favour coordination.
 
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