One of the challenges for corpus linguists is that many of the distinctions that we wish to make are either not annotated in a corpus at all or, if they are represented in the annotation, unreliably annotated. This issue frequently arises in corpora to which an algorithm has been applied, but where the results have not been checked by linguists, a situation which is unavoidable with mega-corpora. However, this is a general problem. We would always recommend that cases be reviewed for accuracy of annotation.
A version of this issue also arises when checking for the possibility of alternation, that is, to ensure that items of Type A can be replaced by Type B items, and vice-versa. An example might be epistemic modal shall vs. will. Most corpora, including richly-annotated corpora such as ICE-GB and DCPSE, do not include modal semantics in their annotation scheme. In such cases the issue is not that the annotation is “imperfect”, rather that our experiment relies on a presumption that the speaker has the choice of either type at any observed point (see Aarts et al. 2013), but that choice is conditioned by the semantic content of the utterance.
The perspective that the study of linguistic data should be driven by studies of individual speaker choices has been the subject of attack from a number of linguists.
The first set of objections have come from researchers who have traditionally focused on linguistic variation expressed in terms of rates per word, or per million words.
No such thing as free variation?
As Smith and Leech (2013) put it: “it is commonplace in linguistics that there is no such thing as free variation” and that indeed multiple differing constraints apply to each term. On the basis of this observation they propose an ‘ecological’ approach, although in their paper this approach is not clearly defined.
One of the most controversial arguments in corpus linguistics concerns the relationship between a ‘variationist’ paradigm comparable with lab experiments, and a traditional corpus linguistics paradigm focusing on normalised word frequencies.
Rather than see these two approaches as diametrically opposed, we propose that it is more helpful to view them as representing different points on a methodological progression, and to recognise that we are often forced to compromise our ideal experimental practice according to the data and tools at our disposal.
Viewing these approaches as being represented along a progression allows us to step back from any single perspective and ask ourselves how different results can be reconciled and research may be improved upon. It allows us to consider the potential value in performing more computer-aided manual annotation — always an arduous task — and where such annotation effort would be usefully focused.
The idea is sketched in the figure below.
A methodological progression: from normalised word frequencies to verified alternation.
A key challenge in corpus linguistics concerns the difficulty of operationalising linguistic questions in terms of choices made by speakers or writers. Whereas lab researchers design an experiment around a choice, comparable corpus research implies the inference of counterfactual alternates. This non-trivial requirement leads many to rely on a per million word baseline, meaning that variation separately due to opportunity and choice cannot be distinguished.
We formalise definitions of mutual substitution and the true rate of alternation as useful idealisations, recognising they may not always hold. Analysing data from a new volume on the verb phrase, we demonstrate how a focus on choices available to speakers allows researchers to factor out the effect of changing opportunities to draw conclusions about choices.
We discuss research strategies where alternates may not be easily identified, including refining baselines by eliminating forms and surveying change against multiple baselines. Finally we address three objections that have been made to this framework, that alternates are not reliably identifiable, baselines are arbitrary, and differing ecological pressures apply to different terms. Throughout we motivate our responses by evidence from current research, demonstrating that whereas the problem of identifying choices may be ‘vexed’, it represents a highly fruitful paradigm for corpus linguistics.