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Argument Structure in Flux

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


Noelia Castro-Chao

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.

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2 The function and development of English impersonal constructions


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2The function and development of English impersonal constructions

2.1Definition and terminology

The so-called impersonal verbs and constructions have been an attractive topic of investigation in English historical linguistics. A variety of terms have been used in the literature to refer to these constructions and to the verbs that occur in them, which has led to considerable terminological confusion, as aptly discussed in an oft-quoted paper by Méndez-Naya & López-Couso (1997). Some of these labels are experiencer constructions, impersonal, nominativeless, quasi-impersonal or subjectless, among others. Furthermore, as will become clear in this chapter, this terminological maze actually reflects an underlying conceptual lack of consensus over what an impersonal construction is. Thus, the aim of this chapter is to provide an overview of the terminological imprecision surrounding impersonal verbs and constructions, as well as to present the conception of impersonal adopted in my research.

Despite the variety of labels employed in the literature, the one most commonly found is no doubt impersonal, which is employed by classical authors (e.g. van der Gaaf 1904; Jespersen 1961[1927]) and also in later approaches (e.g. Lightfoot 1979; Fischer & van der Leek 1983; Möhlig-Falke 2012; Miura 2015). The term impersonal, however, may be applied with a different meaning, namely: 1) to a group of verbs (impersonal verbs) which are defined in semantic terms; 2) to a construction defined on syntactic grounds (impersonal construction) where the so-called impersonal verbs are commonly found (for...

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