Wednesday, September 4, 2013

British English and preposition dropping with barrier verbs

This is yet another in a series of posts detailing data and analysis from my not-quite-entirely-completely-achieved linguistics dissertation (list of previous posts here).

Recall that if an entity wants to achieve a certain outcome, yet is impeded by some force, this situation can be encoded by a barrier verb in English, such as prevent, ban, protect.

preposition dropping and phrase length

Professor Katsuko Tomotsugu presented corpus data about preposition dropping and the NP (from) V‐ing construction, particularly with respect to British English and barrier verbs at this year's International Cognitive Linguistics Conference in Alberta. Here are three examples from her poster:
  • The ozone layer still prevents any lethal UVC radiation reaching the earth. (FBL 3222)
  • Closed doors stopped the fire taking over the whole building in Borough Road. (K4W 266)
  • This somehow inhibits copies of viral DNA being made, and is the basis of acyclovir's anti‐viral activity. (B72 593)
I had noticed this preposition dropping and did a little leg work on it as well back in 2008 (all unpublished), so I thought I would add my two cents to Tomotsugu's data. Note, there is one glaringly obvious pattern to preposition dropping that I'll make plain at the end.

To begin, my focus was different. Tomotsugu was studying causation types and preposition dropping, but I wanted to know if heaviness (length of constituent phrase in number of words) was a factor in the occurrence of barrier verb sentences that dropped the preposition. I made the assumption this phenomenon was associated with British English, so I didn't associate my BNC extraction results with origin, but I think it's clearly a British English thing.

As I began looking in to this, it seemed like object pronouns had a high rate of co-occurrence with the prep drop sentences, so I counted that too (… to prevent them getting damaged). Note that there were no pronoun complements because I only looked at sentential complements. In order to find these kinds of constructions, I had to search a parse tree (using Tgrep2) for an S complement that was sister to an object NP (with no prep in between), so there are no passives in my data. Tomotsugu notes in her poster that passives are common:
A significantly higher frequency of complements using the passive form “being __” was found in the from-less variant of prevent and stop, as well as with verbs of occurrence (happen, arise, occur) in the from‐less variant of prevent.
I simply didn't study this. Note that automatically extracting examples of the prep drop condition with Tgrep2 was tricky, so I settled on one pattern that worked and stuck with it.  I may have missed others.

I found 211 examples of 'prevent X Ying', so I took 211 random samples from my 2152 original prevent from S returns as comparison. and counted the heaviness of the objects and from comps. The table below present the length of object and comp constituents occurring in the barrier verb construction with the construction prevent from S (note, there were zero valid prevent against S examples). Let me repeat my admission from the first post in this series that I am cutting and pasting much of this from chapters I wrote circa 2008. This data should be taken as suggestive only.

The number in the length column represents the number of tokens. The number in the Obj and Comp columns represent the number of sentences matching the length condition. For example, in the first row, it says that 104 ‘prevent X from Ying’ sentences had a verb object of only one token (this includes the 68 pronouns reported in orange above). Whereas, 178 'prevent X Ying' sentences had one word objects (of which, 160 were pronouns). On the other hand, only 4 ‘prevent X from Ying’ sentences had a verb object of 6 words, and only one ‘prevent X Ying’.

First pass interpretation:  The verb prevent is highly frequent, plus its association with the Barrier Verb Construction from is more frequent than other verbs.  This may account for its openness to preposition dropping (but the verb stop also allows prep dropping, even though its association with BVC from is weak).

More importantly, the prep drop sentences clearly had a bias for pronoun objects and they appear to have a bias for shorter comps too.  76% of the prep drop sentences had a pronoun object and 84% overall had a one word object. Of the 211 prep drop sentences, only 12 had objects of 3 words or more (5%); whereas, of the 211 sentences with a preposition, 42 did (20%).
In the from Y-ing sentences, complements on average are about 59% longer than direct objects (1.93/4.7 = .41); whereas in the preposition drop sentences, complements tend to be 67% longer (1.3/3.9 = .33).  Is this difference significant?  If it is, one could say preposition dropping is driven in part by length concerns.

Glaringly Obvious
And now for the glaringly obvious. Tomotsugu explicitly studied NP (from) V‐ing constructions. I did not. My Tgrep2 search extracted every S complement that was sister to an object NP (with no prep in between), regardless of POS. I believe I specified these POSs within my tgrep2 search:


But, every example I retrieved, all 211 in the prevent X S query, involved a VBG complement. Maybe my search query was bad (I can't find the actual Tgrep2 query at the moment, just a description of it within a document).

Here is a representative example of my BNC returns:

  1. Provided-that all the controls can be locked to prevent them getting damaged by slamming against the stops, parking the aircraft facing down wind will be safest, because then the wing is meeting the airflow at a negative angle.  
  2. Although many gliders have a spring or bungee in the circuit to reduce the snatching loads at higher speeds on the approach, this is seldom powerful enough to prevent them sucking open if they are unlocked  
  3. how can I prevent it happening again?  
  4. It is free of charge and can help to detect early signs of health problems and prevent them developing
  5. Even-if you decide you don't have a problem now, it makes sense to do all you can to prevent it happening in the future.  
  6. Their main concern was that independent arbitration would drag out negotiations and prevent them complying with the MMC proposals to free pubs from the tie by the deadline of November 1992.  
  7. That has not prevented them exercising a great influence on our cultural development. 
  8. He got off the mark with an uppish straight drive for four, which might have given a less myopic bowler than Malcolm a return catch, and in Malcolm 's next over, he attempted a square slash which, if he had got an edge, might have prevented him ever setting foot in India again.  
  9. “The reason that Hollywood keeps selling all its film companies to the Australians, the Japanese, and-so-on, is to prevent them falling into the hands of people from New York.”  
  10. Her employers, the Northern regional health authority, want to prevent her returning there, to end her secondment as a neo-natologist in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and for the foreseeable future prevent her working in child abuse.  
  11. Even a nervous pull into the greenside bunker with his third shot at the par-five 18th, which was to open the door for Stewart and Olazabal, could not prevent it being Langer's day.  

This deserves more work, to be sure.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. I have noticed this phenomenon myself from the other side - as a speaker of BrE, I have sometimes wondered whether AmE uses preps more frequently in these cases. I saw it as adding a prep where none was necessary rather than dropping one! From my perspective as a polyglot I wonder how much it has been influenced in AmE by Spanish grammar and usage - I have noticed Greek speakers introducing prepositions into phrases in Greek where none was previously used, as they are influenced by English norms.

Chris said...

Alex, nice point about dropping versus adding depending on your native dialect. I would love to do a cross-linguistic analysis of preposition dropping. With today's corpora and NLP tools, should be a fairly easy study to complete.

It's a theoretical question as to how we would model this. Is the preposition secretly lurking there in deep structure, but doesn't get realized? I haven't kept up with my syntactic theory, so I'm not sure what the various competing theories would say.

Anonymous said...

I have two related examples from British colleagues:

"We need to agree the target audience..."

"Feel free to comment what you think might happen...."

Both of these would require "on" in American English.

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