Genre differences and experimental observations

Spoken categories, modal verbs and change over time

In a recently-published paper, Bowie, Wallis and Aarts (2013) demonstrate that observations regarding changes in the frequency of modal verbs over time are highly sensitive to differences in genre (‘register’ or ‘text category’). Our paper, although based on spoken British English, may shed some light on a recent dispute between Leech (2011) and Millar (2009) regarding how linguists should interpret corpus observations regarding changes in the modal verb system in written US English.

The following table summarises statistically significant percentage decreases and increases of individual modal verbs as a proportion of the number of tensed verb phrases (VPs that could conceivably take a modal verb), within different spoken genre subcategories of the Diachronic Corpus of Present-day Spoken English (DCPSE). The statistical test used examines differences in observed probabilities between samples, i.e. a Newcombe-Wilson test.

For our purposes the cited percentages do not matter, but the direction of travel (indicated by coloured cells) does.

can may could might shall will should would must All
formal f2f ns ns ns ns ns ns -60% ns -75%
informal f2f 27% -42% ns 47% -32% ns ns ns -53% ns
telephone -37% ns -44% ns -56% -30% ns -44% ns -35%
b. discussions -41% -59% ns ns -83% ns ns ns -54% -20%
b. interviews ns -61% ns -59% ns -41% -55% -32% -57% -35%
commentary ns ns ns ns -93% 58% ns ns -64% ns
parliament ns ns ns ns ns -39% ns -30% ns -20%
legal x-exam 304% ns ns ns ns ns 1,265% 254% ns 157%
spontaneous ns ns ns ns ns ns ns ns ns ns
prepared sp. ns -63% ns ns ns 327% ns -32% -48% ns
All genres ns -40% -11% ns -48% 13% -14% -7% -54% -6%

Significant changes (α<0.05) in the proportion of individual core modals out of tensed verb phrases from the 1960s (LLC) to 1990s (ICE-GB) components in DCPSE, adapted from Bowie et al. 2013.

This study concerns modal verbs within text categories. Against a general baseline (words, verb phrases or tensed verb phrases), the total number of modals decrease in use over the course of the period covered by the data (at least, noting the caveat, for spoken English data sampled comparably). Above, we employ tensed verb phrases as the most meaningful baseline out of the three. See That vexed problem of choice.

  • Note that if we take all genres together (bottom row in the table), except for will, every significant change is a decline in use, but in the (large) category of informal face-to-face conversation (second row from top), can and might are both significantly increasing.
  • Legal cross-examination is a predictable outlier, but broadcast interviews and discussions appear to generate very different results. Continue reading