Argument Structure in Flux

The Development of Impersonal Constructions in Middle and Early Modern English, with Special Reference to Verbs of Desire

by Noelia Castro-Chao (Author)
Monographs 300 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 274


The class of verbs of Desire comprises verbs whose syntax and semantics have undergone important changes in the course of their histories. Their argument structure involves a Desirer and a Desired, and in earlier English they could be used impersonally in constructions lacking a subject marked for the nominative case. The book presents three case studies based on a comprehensive survey of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Middle English Dictionary and on corpus data retrieved from EEBOCorp 1.0 (1470s–1690s). The results obtained unveil the loss of impersonal uses and their gradual replacement by personal patterns, in particular a pattern where the verb governs a prepositional complement representing the Desired as a metaphorical goal.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of abbreviations
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Aims of the study
  • 1.2 Outline of the study
  • 2 The function and development of English impersonal constructions
  • 2.1 Definition and terminology
  • 2.2 From Jespersen (1961[1927]) to Allen (1986, 1995)
  • 2.3 Trousdale (2008), Möhlig-Falke (2012), Miura (2015)
  • 2.4 Overview of impersonal constructions and their structural patterns in earlier English
  • 2.4.1 Competing personal patterns
  • 2.5 The function of impersonal constructions in earlier English
  • 3 The nature of verb meaning and constructional meaning
  • 3.1 Verb meaning
  • 3.2 Constructional meaning and the issue of perspective
  • 3.3 The semantic domain of Physical Sensation
  • 3.4 The semantic domain of Emotion
  • 4 The class of verbs of Desire
  • 4.1 Verbs of Desire: Selection
  • 4.2 Verbs of Desire in the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED)
  • 4.3 A fine-grained semantic characterisation of verbs of Desire
  • 4.4 The syntactic patterning in PDE of verbs of Desire vs. Psych-verbs
  • 5 Data and methodology
  • 5.1 Corpus
  • 5.1.1 Early English Books Online (EEBO)
  • 5.1.2 Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP)
  • 5.1.3 Early English Books Online Corpus 1.0 (EEBOCorp 1.0)
  • 5.2 Data selection
  • 5.3 Data retrieval
  • 5.4 Database design
  • 6 Lust
  • 6.1 Origin and development
  • 6.2 Overview of complementation patterns with lust
  • 6.2.1 Lust in impersonal patterns
  • 6.2.2 Lust in personal patterns
  • 6.3 Lust in the EModE period
  • 6.3.1 Impersonal patterns in EModE
  • Patterns with clausal complements
  • Patterns with zero complements
  • Prepositional patterns
  • Patterns with NP complements
  • 6.4 Summary and conclusions
  • 7 Thirst
  • 7.1 Origin and development
  • 7.2 Overview of complementation patterns with thirst
  • 7.2.1 Thirst in impersonal patterns
  • 7.2.2 Thirst in personal patterns
  • 7.3 Thirst in the EModE period
  • 7.3.1 Personal patterns in EModE
  • Prepositional patterns
  • Patterns with zero complements
  • Patterns with NP complements
  • Patterns with clausal complements
  • 7.4 Summary and conclusions
  • 8 Long
  • 8.1 Origin and development
  • 8.2 Overview of complementation patterns with long
  • 8.2.1 Long in impersonal patterns
  • 8.2.2 Long in personal patterns
  • 8.3 Long in the EModE period
  • 8.3.1 Personal patterns in EModE
  • Prepositional patterns
  • Patterns with clausal complements
  • Patterns with zero complements
  • 8.4 Summary and conclusions
  • 9.Discussion and conclusions
  • 9.1 Lust
  • 9.2 Thirst
  • 9.3 Long
  • 9.4 Factors I: Loss of impersonal patterns in the history of English
  • 9.5 Factors II: Development of impersonal verbs of Desire
  • 9.6 Suggestions for further research
  • List of figures
  • List of tables
  • Appendix I. List of selected texts from EEBOCorp 1.0: Subperiod 1 (1500–1549)
  • Appendix II. List of selected texts from EEBOCorp 1.0: Subperiod 2 (1550–1599)
  • Appendix III. List of selected texts from EEBOCorp 1.0: Subperiod 3 (1600–1649)
  • Appendix IV. List of selected texts from EEBOCorp 1.0: Subperiod 4 (1650–1700)
  • References
  • Index

←8 | 9→

List of abbreviations

←10 | 11→

1 Introduction

1.1Aims of the study

The present research explores the historical development of verbs of Desire in earlier English, based on a comprehensive survey of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; http://www.oed.com/) and the Middle English Dictionary (MED; Kurath, Kuhn & Lewis 1952–2001) and on corpus data from the Early Modern English period (1500–1700; henceforth EModE). In Present-day English (henceforth PDE), the class of verbs of Desire includes items such as ache, crave, hope or yearn which, as defined in Levin (1993: 194–195), form a syntactically coherent class insofar as they express the first argument, i.e. “the person that desires something”, as the subject of the clause, whereas the second argument, i.e. “the thing desired”, is expressed either as a direct object, in (1), or as the object of a preposition, in (2) (Levin 1993: 194; examples from Levin 1993: 194–195).

(1)Dorothy needs new shoes

(2)Dana longs for a sunny day

Several verbs of Desire (e.g. hunger, long, lust, need or thirst) have been found to alternate between impersonal and personal use in Old English (c500–1100) and/or Middle English (1100–1500; henceforth OE and ME, respectively), as illustrated in examples (3) and (4) below.

(3)Mi leoue swete lefdi, to þe me longeð swuðe.

‘My beloved sweet lady, I feel a great desire for you’

[OED, a1250 in C. Brown Eng. Lyrics 13th Cent. (1932) 6]

(4)Ich langy so swiþe after Gorloys his wifue.

‘I have such a great desire for Gorloys’s wife’

[MED, c1300 Lay.Brut (Otho C.13) 18918]

←11 | 12→Example (3) represents an impersonal construction which lacks a grammatical subject controlling verbal agreement. Example (4), by contrast, represents a personal construction with a grammatical subject, ich, controlling verbal agreement. In both examples, the person that desires something has the semantic role of Experiencer, which in (3) is syntactically realised by an objective pronoun, me, whereas in (4) it is realised by a subjective pronoun, ich, representing the “animate being inwardly affected by an event or characterized by a state” (Traugott 1972: 34; see also Möhlig-Falke 2012: 31, fn. 12; Miura 2015: 6). According to McCawley (1976: 201), in impersonal constructions the Experiencer may be said to denote a human being who is “unvolitionally involved in the state of affairs” expressed by the verb, and who cannot, therefore, be conceptualised as the Causer of the event or process. The thing desired in (3) and (4) represents a Target of Emotion (henceforth ToE), which refers to something to which attention is directed (see Möhlig-Falke 2012: 92; also Allen 1995: 144); the ToE is syntactically realised by the PP to þe in (3) and the PP after Gorloys his wifue in (4).

In English, the impersonal construction is known to have started to disappear in the late ME period between 1400 and 1500 (van der Gaaf 1904: 142; Allen 1995: 279–283), with marginal impersonal instances being recorded until about 1600 (e.g. a1556, Let hym come when hym lust, OED s.v. lust, v. †2.; see also Visser 1963: §§ 3–43; Traugott 1972: 130–131; Möhlig-Falke 2012: 14–15).1 Thus, the EModE period, with which this study is specifically concerned, is of interest from a historical point of view since impersonal verbs were in the process of readjusting their argument structure to the new possibilities of the grammatical system of English. The EModE period, however, has received comparatively little attention in previous studies, and the focus has largely been on the wide variety of factors which have been claimed to bring about the loss of impersonal patterns during OE and ME. This has given rise to an extensive literature on the topic which includes classical works in historical linguistics dating back to the early 20th century (e.g. van der Gaaf 1904; Wahlén 1925; Jespersen 1961[1927]: Part ←12 | 13→III, §§ 11.2–11.8), as well as later publications like McCawley (1976), Elmer (1981), Fischer & van der Leek (1983, 1987), von Seefranz-Montag (1984), Ogura (1986), Denison (1989, 1990, 1993), Allen (1986, 1995), Fischer (1992: 234–239), Anderson (1997), Haugland (2006), Malak (2008), Trousdale (2008), Loureiro-Porto (2005), Möhlig-Falke (2012), Light & Wallenberg (2015) and Miura (2015).

After the loss of impersonal patterns, impersonal verbs adopted a very idiosyncratic range of syntactic uses, some of which co-existed already in OE with impersonal patterns, as has been shown in previous work (e.g. Fischer & van der Leek 1983; Allen 1995: 286–287). In fact, it has been claimed that “the loss of impersonal patterns proceeded over the respective verbs in a very gradual and seemingly unsystematic manner, in that individual verbs developed in different syntactic ways” (Möhlig-Falke 2012: 3–4). In this light, the overall aim of the present investigation is to elucidate the path of development followed by formerly impersonal verbs of Desire after the general loss of impersonal constructions. In particular, the verbs lust, thirst and long are taken as case studies of the formerly impersonal members in Levin’s class which in PDE have prepositional uses (e.g. PDE, pregnant women lusting for pickles and ice cream, Lexico’s Dictionary s.v. lust verb). The main aims of this study may be summarised as follows:

The analysis of verbs of Desire presented here consists of two major parts. First, the relevant entries in the OED and the MED will be ←13 | 14→examined, which allows us to outline the main syntactic and semantic properties of the three verbs under study—lust, thirst, long—in the course of their history, paying special attention to the late ME period, which is when impersonal constructions are said to lose productivity. Secondly, an empirical investigation of linguistic data will be conducted on the basis of a dataset extracted from Early English Books Online Corpus 1.0 (1500–1700; henceforth EEBOCorp 1.0; Petré 2013). Thereby, I intend to take up the call made in previous studies for the need for “a large corpus-based study of not just Old and Middle English but also early Modern English” (Miura 2015: 9), which, as mentioned above, is a period that has received comparatively little attention in the literature on impersonal verbs and constructions, and that can thus shed more light on the matter (see also Fischer & van der Leek 1983: 337; Möhlig-Falke 2012: 235).

1.2Outline of the study

The structure of the book is as follows. Chapter 2 begins with the definition of impersonalhood and of the terminology adopted in this study. Sections 2.2 and 2.3 provide an overview of the development of impersonal constructions in earlier English as well as the main hypotheses put forward in the literature about their disappearance. Section 2.4, for its part, outlines the main structural patterns of impersonal constructions in earlier English, and Section 2.5 focuses on their main functions.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 300 pp., 26 fig. b/w, 25 tables.

Biographical notes

Noelia Castro-Chao (Author)

Noelia Castro-Chao holds a PhD in English linguistics from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). Her research interests include historical syntax and semantics, corpus linguistics, and construction grammar.


Title: Argument Structure in Flux