The Phrase. Noun, Adjective and Verb Patterns

529. In Early ME while the nominal parts of speech were losing most of their grammatical distinctions, the structure of the main word phrases with nouns, adjectives, and verbs as head-words was considerably altered.

In OE the dependent components of noun patterns agreed with the noun in case, number and gender, if they were expressed by adjectives, adjective-pronouns or participles. If expressed by nouns, they either agreed with the head-noun in case and number (nouns in apposition) or had the form of the Gen. case.

By Late ME agreement in noun patterns had practically disappeared, except for some instances of agreement in number. Formal markers of number had been preserved in nouns, demonstrative pronouns and some survivals of the strong declension of adjectives; most adjectives and adjectivised participles had lost number inflections by the age of Chaucer; cf. a few phrases from Chaucer:

sg:... this holy mayden... that requeste

pl: These wodes eek recoveren grene. (These woods become green again.)

as thise clerkes seyn (as these learned men say)

A good man was ther of religioun. (There was a good man, a priest.);

Goode men, herkneth everych onl (Good men, listen!) but far more often there was no agreement in number:

... his woundes newe, the same ship, strange place, straunge strondes, etc. (his new wounds, the same ship, strange place, strange strands.)

The last traces of agreement in adjectives were lost in the 15th c. when the inflection -e was dropped; only the demonstrative pronouns, the indefinite article and nouns in apposition indicated the number of the head-word, like in Mod E. When the adjective had lost its forms of agreement, its relationships with the noun were shown by its position; it was placed before the noun, or between the noun and its determiners (articles and pronouns). Sometimes in Late ME the adjective stood in post-position, which can be attributed to the influence of French syntax (in French the adjective was placed after the noun), e. g.: Brother dere; cares colde; woundes newe. (Chaucer) (Relics of this practice are now found as some modern set phrases such as court martial, time immemorial.)

A noun used attributively had the form of the Gen. case or was joined to the head-noun by a preposition. In Chaucers time the use of -s-Gen. was less restricted than in Mod E, so that inanimate nouns commonly occurred as inflectional Gen. in a noun pattern: fadres sone fathers son, seintes lore saints lore, every shires ende end of every shire. Yet the use of prepositions had certainly become more extensive: the sergeaunts of the tom of Rome the officials of the town of Rome, men of armes men of arms, etc. (see also 433-434 for the history of the Gen. case).

530. In the age of the literary Renaissance, the noun patterns became fixed syntactic frames in which every position had a specific functional significance. The attribute in pre-position was enclosed between the determiner and the head-word; hence every word occupying this position was an attribute. This is evidenced by the wide use of nouns as attributes in noun patterns at the time of Shakespeare, an age famous for its unconventional handling of parts of speech, e. g.:

Jog on, jog on. the footpath way; the darling buds of May; the master mistress of my passion; rascal counters. (Shakespeare)

The standardised frame of the noun pattern is also confirmed by the fact that the position of the head noun could not be left vacant it was at that time that the indefinite pronoun one and the demonstrative that began to be used as the so-called prop-words, e. g.:

A barren-spirited fellow, one that feeds On abject orts and imitations.. (Shakespeare)

With the growth of the written language noun patterns became more varied and more extended. Attributes to nouns could contain prepositional phrases with other attributes:

For drunkennesse is verray sepulture Of mannes wit and his discrecioun. (Chaucer)

(For drunkenness is the burying (lit. sepulture) of man's wit and his discretion.)

In Early NE noun patterns began to include syntactic complexes: predicative constructions with the Gerund and the Infinitive (see 541 ff).

531. In ME and Early NE adjective patterns, as before, included a variety of dependent components. Adjectives were commonly modified by adverbs, e. g.:

He was a verray parfit gentil knyght. (Chaucer)

(He was a very perfect noble knight.)

The main difference from the preceding ages lay in the ways of connection between the adjective and the nouns or noun-pronouns used as dependent components of the pattern. In OE an adjective could take an object in the Dat. or Gen. case (with or without prepositions); in ME these objects were replaced by the Comm. case usually preceded by a preposition, e. g.: with face pale of hewe; so harde of his herte; amyable of port; unlyk to my dede;.. discreet in alle his wordes and dedes; so patient unto a man. (Chaucer) (with a pale face; hard-hearted; amiable in behaviour, unlike my deed; discreet in all his words and deeds; so patient to a man).

Some adjectives, especially the most frequent ones, displayed great vacillation in the choice of prepositions. For instance, in the 14th c. fair and good occur with the prepositions of, in, to, at, by.

The adjective freely combined with the Infinitive since the earliest periods. Examples from Chaucer are: redy for to ryde ready to ride; I am free to wedde I am free to marry; A manly man, to been an abbot able a manly man, able to be an abbot.

The use of adjectives with the -ing-form was more restricted; in later periods it increased steadily as the gerund and gerundial complexes began to replace the Infinitive in adjective phrases, e. g.;

measurable in looking and in berunge (Chaucer)

(moderate in appearance and behaviour (lit. looking and bearing)

But yet her portion is worth your taking notice, Master Aimweil. (Shirley, early 17th c.)

532. The history of the verb pattern embraced a number of important changes and developments.

In some respects verb patterns became more uniform. In OE the verb could take various objects and adverbial modifiers expressed by the oblique cases of nouns. In ME the oblique cases were replaced by the Comm. case (or the Obj. case of pronouns), with or without prepositions. Even though the inflectional -s-Gen. survived, it was no longer used in verb patterns (it occurred in attributive function only). The use of prepositions in verb patterns grew, and so did the number of transitive verbs which took an object without a preposition. The following quotations from Chaucers poems show the replacement of the oblique cases: by the Comm. case of nouns and the Obj. case of pronouns:

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke

(Who has helped them when they were ill OE helpan took an object in the Dat. case)

And first to Cecilie, as I understonde,

He yaf that one

(And first he gave that one (rose) to Cecily the objects correspond to the OE Dat. and Acc. cases.)

After her deeth ful ofte may she wayte.

(She often waited for death the corresponding OE verb bidan governed the Gen. case.)

At nyght were come into that hostelrye

Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye...

(At night came into that inn a company of twenty-nine the respective OE form was nihtes the Gen. case in an adverbial function.)

In a tabard he rood upon a mere.

(He rode upon a mare in a long coat OE mearum ridan ride a horse with a noun in the Dat. case; see also 432)

Throughout ME and Early NE the use of prepositions displayed great fluctuation. Many verbs were used with a variety of prepositions until the age of prescriptive grammars and dictionaries, and some verbs a long time after. During the NE period the size and complexity of verb patterns grew, as the verbs came to be extended by noun patterns of more complicated structure, by Infin. phrases and predicative constructions with diverse components (see 541 ff.).

533. An important change took place in the patterns of numerous verbs termed impersonal or quasi-impersonal. These verbs indicated a state or feeling, e.g. OE lician please (NE like). OE lystan desire, OE ʒescomian (NE shame), Early ME wanten, semen (NE want, seem). Originally most of these verbs took two objects: one to indicate the person who experienced the state or feeling, the other to show its cause, e. g. OE him ne hlyste nānes metes he did not want any food; the cause, or object of the feeling could sometimes be shown by the subject of the sentence in the Nom. case: pām wife pā word wel licodon those words pleased that woman well.

In Late ME these impersonal constructions were transformed into personal in which the relationships were reversed: (he subject indicated the person affected by the feeling or state, the object the direction or cause of the feeling. The change can be described as the transition of the type me liketh into I like.

The following examples from Chaucer show the variation stage of the chanee the parallel use of both types of construction with the same verb:

... so sore longeth me

To eten of the smale peres grene.

(So badly I long to eat some of these small green pears.)

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

(Then folks long to go on pilgrimages.)

My God, me metle I was in swich meschief

(My God, I dreamed I was in such grief.)

And eek I seyde, I metle of him al night

(And also I said I dreamt of him all night.)

This man metle in his bed, ther as he lay...

(This man dreamt in his bed, where he lay.)

The two parallel syntactic constructions me longelh/l long, me metle/f incite were used in free variation as synonyms or syntactic variants. Eventually the second variant (the personal construction) prevailed with most of the verbs. The selection of this variant and the obsolescence of the impersonal type was determined by morphological and syntactic factors. The loss of inflectional endings in nouns made it impossible to distinguish between the subject and object in such instances as this man(e) mette (the last example). Syntactic ambiguity stimulated the appearance of the I like type, for man was more readily associated with the Nom. case of pronouns than with the Obj. case. It must have been interpreted as the subject of the sentence not only owing to the lack of inflectional endings but also due to its position before the verb-predicate, which by that time was becomjng the normal place of the subject. The type me likes fell into disuse, being replaced by the type man liketh and I like. Mod E meseems and methinks are relics of the old construction.

534. Some verb phrases merged into single grammatical or lexical units and in this sense were simplified. As shown in the preceding paragraphs verb phrases consisting of a finite and a non-finite verb turned into analytical forms, thus passing from the level of syntax to that of morphology. Verb phrases consisting of verbs and adverbs which modified or specified the meaning of the verb formed lexical units known as composite verbs or verb-adverb combinations (this process made up for the loss of many OE verb prefixes). Likewise, many verb phrases became inseparable group-verbs or phraseological units, e. g. maken melodie (sing) in Chaucer and have mind upon your health, have war, have business, etc. in Shakespeare.


  1. A. The adjectives below can be used to describe inventions or new ideas. Which have a positive meaning? Which have a negative meaning?
  4. B. Listen to part of a radio interview with a historian talking about Einstein. Then complete each sentence with a word or a short phrase. (Track 17, CD2)
  5. Bearish Continuation Patterns
  6. Bullish Continuation Patterns
  7. Comparative ad superlative adjectives
  8. Declension of Adjectives in Late Middle English
  9. Fill the gaps with a suitable adjective
  10. Give the adjectives made from the nouns of Task 7
  11. How many adjectives can you remember for describing people's looks? Try this quiz to test your vocabulary. Match the word on the left with the same meaning on the right.
  12. I. Look at the following sentences paying attention to the use of the degrees of comparison of adjectives and adverbs

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Development of Verbal Grammatical Categories | The Simple Sentence

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