Illocutionary Shell Nouns in English

by Carla Vergaro (Author)
©2018 Monographs 322 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 244


The volume deals with the topic of illocutionary shell nouns in English, i.e. nouns that encapsulate a content that is usually expressed in a complement or in a separate sentence or clause, and report or characterize it as a specific speech act. The book reports a usage-based study of the complementation patterns in a corpus of 335 illocutionary nouns distributed across the five Searlean classes of assertive, commissive, directive, expressive, and declarative nouns. The investigation aims to verify the association between the meaning of these nouns and their complementation patterns, and between their semantic similarity and the similarity in the distribution of complementation patterns.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • 1.1 Aim of the study
  • 1.2 Shell nouns
  • 1.3 Illocutionary shell nouns
  • 1.4 Theoretical assumptions
  • 1.4.1 Conceptual content and construal
  • 1.4.2 Prototypical conception of categorial structure
  • 1.5 Conclusion and outlook
  • Chapter 2. Data and methodology
  • 2.1 The corpus
  • 2.2 Procedure
  • 2.2.1 Semantic analysis
  • 2.2.2 Grammatical analysis
  • Chapter 3. Assertive shell nouns
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Data and methodology
  • 3.3 Analysis and results
  • 3.3.1 Semantic analysis
  • Defending and true-for-the-sake-of-the-argument assertions
  • Public, future-directed, appeasing and implicit assertions
  • Aggressive, reactive and evaluative assertions
  • Weak assertions
  • False assertions
  • 3.3.2 Grammatical analysis
  • Uses in shell-noun function
  • Overview of constructional patterns
  • Major patterns
  • N-that
  • Pro-BE-N
  • N-BE-that
  • Existential Construction
  • Minor patterns
  • 3.4 Discussion
  • Chapter 4. Commissive shell nouns
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Data and methodology
  • 4.3 Analysis and results
  • 4.3.1 Semantic analysis
  • 4.3.2 Grammatical analysis
  • Uses in shell-noun function
  • Overview of constructional patterns
  • Major patterns
  • Minor patterns
  • 4.4 Discussion
  • Chapter 5. Directive shell nouns
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Data and methodology
  • 5.3 Analysis and results
  • 5.3.1 Semantic analysis
  • 5.3.2 Grammatical analysis
  • Uses in shell-noun function
  • Overview of constructional patterns
  • Major patterns
  • Minor patterns
  • 5.4 Discussion
  • Chapter 6. Expressive shell nouns
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Data and methodology
  • 6.3 Analysis and results
  • 6.3.1 Semantic analysis
  • 6.3.2 Grammatical analysis
  • Uses in shell-noun function
  • Overview of constructional patterns
  • Major patterns
  • Minor patterns
  • 6.4 Discussion
  • Chapter 7. Declarative shell nouns
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Data and methodology
  • 7.3 Analysis and results
  • 7.3.1 Semantic analysis
  • 7.3.2 Grammatical analysis
  • 7.4 Discussion
  • Chapter 8. Discussion and conclusion
  • 8.1 Introduction
  • 8.2 Conspectus
  • 8.2.1 Use in shell-noun function
  • 8.2.2 Distribution of patterns
  • 8.3 General discussion
  • 8.4 Conclusion
  • References
  • Appendix 1
  • Appendix 2
  • Index of illocutionary shell nouns
  • Index of subjects
  • Series index

← 12 | 13 →

Chapter 1.  Introduction

1.1  Aim of the study

In this research we focus on nouns that report speech acts. Following Schmid (2000), we will refer to these nouns as illocutionary shell nouns. The term “shell noun” reflects the idea that the nouns encapsulate a content that is usually expressed in a complement or even separate clause or sentence, and ascribe an illocutionary force to it. Examples (1–4), extracted from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies 2008, henceforth COCA), illustrate nouns reporting different types of speech acts and some of the major constructional patterns with which they occur.

(1) Hirschhorn is well known for his assertion that he does not make political art, but he makes art politically.
Pattern: noun followed by that-clause (N-that)

(2) Koresh refused to honor his promise and has indicated he will keep his promise to come out when he receives further instruction from God.
Pattern: noun followed by to-infinitive (N-to inf)

(3) It’s been great… fun.” “That is a compliment to me.”
Pattern: anaphoric pronoun as subject followed by copula BE followed by noun (Pro-BE-N)

(4) In 1982, he requested that the HSM hand over its bank account and contribute its resources to the church. The request tore the HSM into two factions.
Pattern: definite or indefinite article followed by noun (Det-N)

The shell nouns, rendered in bold print, characterize the actions performed in uttering some content. The underlined parts are the contents encapsulated and characterized by the nouns. The nouns provide characterizations of how the content is to be taken, i.e. as an assertion, a promise, a compliment, and a request, respectively.

Illocutionary nouns are not necessarily used as shell nouns. In this case, they do not report any utterance as a specific speech act. For ← 13 | 14 → example, in (5), accusation names the speech act of accusing, but is not used as a shell noun.

(5) Punter forgave me. He never brought a public accusation; without a victim’s accusation by definition no crime has been committed.

The purpose of the study is to undertake a corpus-based analysis – rooted in the usage-based model of language (see Barlow and Kemmer 2000) – of illocutionary shell nouns in English to check for the association between the meaning of these nouns and their complementation patterns, and between their semantic similarity and the similarity in the distribution of complementation patterns.

The analysis has been motivated by two observations. First, English illocutionary shell nouns have to date never been the object of a systematic study. The only descriptive analysis specifically focusing on the topic is Chapter 8 of Schmid’s (2000) general study on shell nouns, in which illocutionary shell nouns are analyzed as one type of linguistic shell nouns. Secondly, the literature on complementation has concentrated mainly on the verbal category1. This study therefore hopes to contribute to better knowledge of illocutionary shell nouns as well as noun complementation in English.

1.2  Shell nouns

The topic of shell nouns in English has received the most extensive coverage in Schmid’s (2000) groundbreaking work on shell nouns, although the term “shell noun” had already appeared in Schmid (1998). With the term “shell noun” he defines “an open-ended functionally defined class of abstract nouns that have, to varying degrees, the potential for being used as conceptual shells for complex, proposition-like pieces of information” (Schmid 2000: 4).

Therefore, shell nouns are, first of all, a functional category. Nouns are not shell nouns because of some inherent property; they ← 14 | 15 → have the potential to lend themselves to be exploited by speakers of a language as shell nouns. Some of them have this potential more than others.

Secondly, they are abstract nouns. Abstractness is defined by Schmid following Lyons’ (1977, 1979, 1989, cited in Schmid 2000: 63–70) tripartite distinction between first-order entities – “persons, animals, other organisms and physical objects which are located in space and have fairly constant perceptual properties” –, second-order entities – “events, processes and situations” –, and third-order entities – “abstract entities such as concepts, propositions, or more generally, ideas outside place and time”. Whereas first-order entities are not good candidates for shellnounhood because they are used for referring, the nature of the members of the other two categories allows them to be used to denote, not just to refer. Thus, shellnounhood is conceived of as a gradable property, with third-order entities that, being representations of abstract relations, constitute the prototypical core of the class of shell nouns. As Schmid (2000: 68) states:

Nouns such as campaign, reaction, trick or mistake stand for observable physical events and are thus second-order entities. They can function as shell nouns as well, but they represent less typical cases because they are less frequent, collocationally less versatile than shell nouns denoting abstract relations.

Thirdly, but just as importantly, they are characterized by unspecificity, i.e. there should exist a gap in their semantic structure that allows them to shell a content. The best diagnostics proposed by Schmid (2000: 77) for the existence of such gaps is the occurrence of shell nouns in the patterns N-cl (noun followed by clause) and/or N-BE-cl (noun followed by copula BE followed by clause). In any case, unspecificity is considered by Schmid as a precondition for the actualization of the potentiality that nouns have for shellnounhood2, and explained with a crystal-clear example that we report in its entirety: ← 15 | 16 →

Consider for instance the noun reason. As is typical of shell nouns, the noun reason itself provides information of a very limited nature. It does convey the information that one thing is causing or has caused some other thing but it gives no clue as to what these things are. By evoking a two place relation between cause and effect, the noun reason sets up two clearly defined semantic gaps that need to be filled. However, when it comes to specifying these things the noun itself misses out and must rely on the context to supply the necessary information, a characteristics which is of course again typical of shell nouns. Thus the meaning of the noun consists of two parts: a stable and relatively well-determined semantic structure on the one hand, and two gaps which depending on the contexts in which the word is used, can be filled in by a variety of pieces of information. (2000: 76)

Moving to the functions shell nouns can serve, Schmid frames the relation between shell nouns and shell-noun contents in a cognitive perspective and states that such a relation is one of “experiential identity” in that shell nouns and shell-noun contents are about the same thing: they separately contribute to the formation of one thought in the speaker’s/hearer’s mind (2000: 29). Indeed, the cognitive function shell nouns have is considered by Schmid “as their ultimate raison d’être” (2000: 360). It is analyzed into three aspects that are, however, tightly interwoven: conceptual partitioning, reifying/hypostatizing, and integrating. Shell nouns are used to partition large units of information into single concepts to which speakers and hearers can cling in their processing of the flow of information. This capacity of concept creation by partitioning is explained in cognitive terms using Langacker’s definition of summary scanning of events done by nouns: nouns give prominence or profile “a region in some domain” (1987a: 144), thus allowing in a given context to conceptualize experience as a thing, so reifying it or, in more philosophical terms, hypostatizing it. Lastly, integration refers to the fact that shell nouns can stand for whole cognitive complexes. This cognitive notion of “gestalt-formation” (Schmid 2000: 376) also lies behind the other two criterial functions shell nouns can serve.

The first is the semantic function of characterizing the information expressed in the shell content as being, for example, a fact, a problem, and thus ascribing or specifying the shell content in terms of the semantics of the noun.

The exploitation of shell nouns for rhetorical or textual aims, i.e. to achieve an effect or to organize text segments in a specific way, is ← 16 | 17 → the third criterial function analyzed in Schmid (2000). This is also the function that has received most attention in applied linguistics studies because it deals with the creation of cohesive ties (linking function) within the text, and signals textual units and the boundaries between them (signposting function).

Before the coinage of the term by Schmid in 1998 and his systematic coverage of the phenomenon in 2000, the property that nouns have to encapsulate and label segments of texts, and the functions this property could serve had been studied or mentioned under other labels, i.e. as “container nouns” (Vendler 1967, 1968), “general nouns” (Halliday and Hasan 1976), “anaphoric nouns” (Francis 1986), “nominali anaforici incapsulatori” [anaphoric nominal encapsulators] (D’Addio Colosimo 1988), “carrier nouns” (Ivanič 1991), “unspecific nouns” (Winter 1992), “advance/retrospective labels” (Francis 1994), “enumerative nouns” (Tadros 1994) and “anaphoric encapsulators” (Conte 1996). Other labels have been used after Schmid’s (1998, 2000) as well, i.e. “catch-all nouns” (Hinkel 2001) or “signalling nouns” (Flowerdew 2003).

Most of these studies, though not all of them (Vendler 1967, 1968; Conte 1996), have been developed within applied linguistics and focus on the rhetorical and argumentative role that this type of noun plays in texts, especially in academic and journalistic discourse genres3. The intuitions they contain and the foundations they provide for the shell-noun notion have been widely acknowledged by Schmid (2000). They also have in common the focus on the metadiscursive and cohesive function that shell nouns play in these types of discourse. As for the illocutionary type of shell nouns under scrutiny in this book, as Benitez-Castro emphasizes, “shell-noun research to date has devoted substantial attention to abstract units with clear semantic gaps, as these show a close association with typical shell-noun patterns” (2015: 174), but illocutionary shell nouns appear in these studies in a fragmentary way, because in none of them is their analysis the main aim. However, in her theoretical discussion of anaphoric encapsulation, Conte (1996) ← 17 | 18 → draws a line between the encapsulation done by illocutionary nouns and that done by other nouns, in that the ascription of an illocutionary force to an utterance produces a shift to the metacommunicative level.

Lastly, even in Schmid (2000), illocutionary shell nouns are analyzed in one chapter as one type of linguistic use of shell nouns. However, the aim of Schmid’s study was to give a thorough picture of the category of shell nouns per se, and hence a fine-grained investigation of this type of shell noun would not have been possible within that study. Thus, the next section is dedicated to the definition of illocutionary shell nouns.

1.3  Illocutionary shell nouns

Illocutionary shell nouns are illocutionary nouns, i.e. nouns that name speech acts, which can lend themselves, to varying degrees, to be exploited in the function of shell nouns.

From the morphological point of view, illocutionary nouns, though not all of them4, are deverbal abstract nouns derived from speech-act verbs and, as such, they fall under the broad category of nomina actionis. More specifically, they are a subgroup of nomina actionis in that the action they refer to is a specific one, namely the illocutionary force denoted by the speech-act verb from which they come.

The topic of nomina actionis has been widely studied in linguistics (see, for example, Hopper and Thompson 1985; Bierwisch 1990; Brinton 1995; Gaeta 2002; Heyvaert 2003) and major linguistic schools have addressed, to different degrees, the issue of English nominalization in their representative works. It is generally considered a complex phenomenon because it involves the transcategorization from a grammatical category (the Verb) to another grammatical category (the Noun)5. As Gaeta (2002: 15) observes: ← 18 | 19 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
illocutionary shell noun noun complementation prototype reliance shell noun shell content speech act
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 322 pp., 9 fig. b/w, 82 tables

Biographical notes

Carla Vergaro (Author)

Carla Vergaro is Associate Professor of English language and linguistics at the University of Perugia, Italy. Her main research interests lie in pragmatic linguistics, literary pragmatics, text and discourse analysis, cognitive semantics, and applied linguistics.


Title: Illocutionary Shell Nouns in English