The process of grammatical constructionalization (Traugott 2008, Trousdale 2008, Traugott & Trousdale 2010) is concerned with the development of form-meaning pairings which develop a particular procedural, non-referential meaning, and which are characterised by changes associated with three particular parameters: generality, productivity and compositionality (see also Langacker 2005, and a related discussion in Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994). The following changes to those parameters are:
a. an increase in semantic generality. As noted above, a semantic-pragmatic expansion is witnessed in the relaxation of the condition that the matrix proposition must denote a non-event/negative state (cf. Kortmann 1991). It might be observed that this is rather a weak expansion, when one considers, for instance, the extent to which semantic polysemies have developed. However, the greatest changes seem to have been in the realm of pragmatics. As Felser & Britain (2007) observe, even in their formal model of what with absolutes, the location of what as the head of an Evaluative Phrase underspecifies the positive or negative evaluation of the proposition. The diachronic evidence points to a change, whereby positive propositions associated with the matrix clause have increased in frequency. While semantic bleaching is often considered a hallmark of grammaticalization, there is little evidence of bleaching in the development of this construction. One possible reason for this is the fairly bleached origins of the various elements of the construction, that is, what and a preposition (see also Traugott 2008b, Patten 2010, this book, on the grammaticalization of constructions without lexical source);
b. an increase in syntactic productivity. The host-class and syntactic expansions discussed above provide evidence for an increase in syntactic productivity. In the earliest CLMETEV period (1710-1780), only coordinated NP complements were attested; by contrast, in the COCA corpus, we see evidence of non-coordinate structures, and an extended range of XP complements. Nonetheless, despite this expansion, the construction is still infrequent. Possible explanations for this infrequency must be tentative. As noted above, other grammarians who have written on the what with construction in English have comments on its infrequency and its sociolinguistic patterns (that is, its tendency to appear in informal discourse), see for example Kortmann (1991); Quirk et al. (1985); Huddleston & Pullum (2002). A possible reason for this infrequency may again be associated with entrenchment. While entrenchment links to the selection of what with over other combinations of what and a preposition, what with itself may be disfavoured over other very frequent (grammaticalized) heads of reason clauses which are factive, like given or granted;
c. a decrease in compositionality. This decrease in compositionality applies to the increased idiomaticity that arises from the narrowing of what + P to what with.
A critical issue here is that changes do not simply affect what + P + XP, but larger constructional types. In grammatical constructionalization, different parts of a construction may change in different ways, with some parts showing the 'classic' grammaticalization pattern of increased dependency and obligatorification (associated with reduction), and others showing how grammaticalization involves expansion and growth.
Felser & Britain (2007) argue that what with is not grammaticalized. Their argument is, first, that what with is not a constituent adverbs may be inserted to give strings such as what also with, and second, that examples such as what all with suggest that what with cannot be located under a single (grammaticalized head). None of these forms were attested in the corpus search; that said, the construction is fairly infrequent in the first place. But the data from the corpus do provide evidence that suggests that the what with construction is clearly taking part in the restructuring of absolutes in English, developing stronger internal dependencies, and licensing a wider range of complementation types. The occasional instances where what and with do not form a unit show that there is variation, but does not provide evidence against the development of a process whereby a shift towards a more unit-like status is clearly in progress. There is clearly a gradual process of univerbation at work, even if the two items have not univerbated for every speaker.
Micro-steps are an important part of establishing how grammatical constructionalization takes place. For instance, the minimalist position taken by Felser & Britain (2007) suggests that a TP (clausal) complement should be considered basic, with what appear to be DP complements being analysed as TPs with null heads and pro in spec-TP position. However, as Felser & Britain themselves note, the diachronic evidence suggests that clausal complements of what with are newer, and nominal complements are the most frequently attested earlier forms. A constructional model, which considers changes in sequences of form-meaning pairings, and focuses on contraction and expansion at different levels of the construction, provides an alternative analysis for the growth of the pattern, and the various grammatical changes involved. This approach, which concentrates on the "coevolution of meaning and form" (Bybee, Perkins & Pagliuca 1994: 20) provides (a) a coherent account of the development of the construction and (b) a legitimate analysis of the synchronic variation.
Finally, these micro-steps in the development of the what with construction should, as noted in Section 2 above, be seen in the context of the development of free adjuncts and absolutes in the history of English. As Rio-Rey (2002) observes, corpus evidence in the Early Modern period shows the distinction between free adjuncts and absolutes to be less sharp than is the case in present-day English. In the Early Modern period, free adjuncts with non-coreferential subjects, and absolutes with overt subjects, while not common, were more widely attested. Over time, a functional split between the two constructional types has emerged, the development being "a gradual one towards the fulfillment of complementary tasks" (Kortmann 1991: 103). The emergence of this more general pattern the use of free adjuncts in cases of subject coreference, and the use of absolutes in cases of non-identity between the referents of subjects of the finite and non-finite verbs suggests greater transparency and regularity in the form and function of the macro-constructions.
At the end of Section 2 above, I hypothesized that an increase in generality of the construction may involve yet further abstraction on the part of users of English. That hypothesis would be supported were there evidence of complements of what with that were finite clauses, rather than the non-finite clauses typically associated with absolutes and free adjuncts. No such finite clauses appeared in the COCA corpus. However, there are some sporadic internet examples of what with preceding finite clauses, as in (30)-(32):
(30) Paul Sereno knows this very well, what with he's been getting Todd Marshall to illustrate just about everything his team's been finding in Africa. [scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/02/day_6_silvisaurus.php; accessed 15th February 2011]
(31) My mom always mails a Christmas box to hubby and me, what with she's in the South and we're not. [sallanscorner.wordpress.com/2010/12/; accessed 15th February, 2011]
(32) So I'm gonna quit and hand it in now. Leastways it don't matter, what with I'm outta here next week, but the hypothetical question is: if I was to turn this in for a grade, seeing as I spent two thirds of the time assigned, and carved up three quarters of the assigned surface, would that mean I get a "B" on the project? Strictly hypothetically speakin, I mean. [wirelady.com/berrienwirecurranpage.html; accessed 15th February 2011]
These could be early instances of further reanalyses of what with as a grammaticalized subordinator, capable of introducing both finite and non-finite clauses: This would constitute yet further constructional change. For speakers of English for whom constructs such as (30)-(32) above are grammatical, they are sanctioned by an even more abstract macro-construction, which allows complements of what with to be finite.
Also at the end of Section 2, a further hypothesis was made regarding grammaticalization and the development of complement types of what with. Since non-finite clauses with controlled subjects (that is, where the covert subject of the non-finite verb is co-referential with the overt subject of the main clause verb) are said to be more integrated or bound to the main clause than is the case for non-finite clauses with overt, non-co-referential subjects, we might expect in cases of grammaticalization that the latter might develop after the former. The Late Modern English evidence does not support this hypothesis, since in Table 1 it is shown that there were three instances of constructions with co-referential subjects in the second period (1780-1850), and no instance of the other constructional type. However, the numbers involved are very small, and a study using a larger corpus of Late Modern English may reveal different patterns. The data from larger contemporary English corpora (that is, the BNC data used in Felser & Britain 2007, and the COCA corpus used in this article) show that what with constructions involving coreferential subjects are less frequent than those where each clause has a different subject. It seems to be the case that what with constructions involving nominal complements only are decreasing in frequency, with clausal complements on the increase over time.