Given vs. new information influencing constituent ordering in the verb-particle construction

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Author: Julia Peters
Date: Annual 2000
From: LACUS Forum(Vol. 27)
Publisher: Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,191 words
Lexile Measure: 1430L

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INTRODUCTION. Spontaneous oral language production is always remarkable in its unpredictability. A simple picture given to ten different people to describe will undoubtedly generate an equal number of unique utterances comprising different syntactic structures, lexical items, and intonational contours. Within all this variability there must exist certain factors which influence speakers to structure their language as they do; otherwise, we would be in a constant state of indecision about how to encode our message. One way to delve into this broad topic is to look at one particular variable syntactic construction (verb-particle combination) and one potential sequence-influencing factor (discourse information flow).

1. CONSTRUCTION UNDER INVESTIGATION. The variable syntactic structure I chose for this experiment is the English verb-particle construction indicated in the following examples by italics.

(1) pull up the anchor, bang in the door, hold off the enemy

Despite being morphologically distinct, the verb and the particle do form a singular concept, evidenced by the fact that many of the verb particle combinations have one-word near-synonyms, as in (2).

(2) raise the anchor, demolish the door, repel the enemy

The verb-particle construction may often be confused with the V + PP sequence since they both can exhibit the same linear sequence of constituents. However, the verb-particle combination is structurally distinct in that the particle is not fixed in its position relative to the noun phrase (NP). Whereas in (1) the particle precedes the NP object, in (3) the particle follows the NP object with no great change in meaning or effect.

(3) pull the anchor up, bang the door in, hold the enemy off

Since both orderings of constituents can be used to describe the same scene or can generate the same interpretation, it seems obvious that there is more at work than purely semantics in the eventual determination of one order over the other. Of the numerous potential factors which may influence the ultimate sequence, this experiment investigates the role of a particular discourse factor in the course of oral languages production.


2.1 MOTIVATION. In 1967, Halliday brought to our attention a tendency for 'given' information (information already known in the discourse context) to precede 'new' information (information not previously mentioned or alluded to) in the linear presentation of a sentence.

If one applies this logic to the sequencing of constituents in the verb-particle construction, it may be that the principle of given vs. new information will influence the distribution of the particle in relation to the object NP. More specifically, if the entity encoded by a particular object NP has not been previously mentioned in the discourse (and would therefore be considered 'new'), would it surface after the particle more oten than in cases where the entity has already been mentioned, in which case, (being 'given') it would precede the particle?


2.2.1. PARTICIPANTS. 56 native speakers of English participated in this experiment. Most were undergraduate students from the University of Alberta, between the ages of 20 to 30, and who had grown up in western Canada. A handful of participants,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A307270786