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[WS124] Register variation and syntactic theory


Authors : Timothy Stowell, Liliane Haegeman, and Elisabeth Stark

Title : Register variation and syntactic theory

The goal of this workshop is to examine register-based syntactic variation. In recent years, linguists have compared the grammars of closely related languages and dialects to gain insight into the parameters of cross-linguistic variation. This research strategy has enabled researchers to isolate the effects of individual parameters of grammatical variation, by comparing grammars that are otherwise very similar. This workshop aims to bring together scholars who have applied the methodology of comparative syntax to the study of register-based variation. The workshop will include papers that offer detailed empirical descriptions of register-related syntactic variation, as well as papers that discuss how such register-related variation should be accounted for in theoretical terms.

Registers are typically classified in terms of particular contexts of language use (Barton 1998, Biber 1995, Ferguson 1982, Zwicky and Zwicky 1982). These may include formal versus informal contexts (e.g., with the use of particular lexical items such as slang and grammatical formatives such as honorifics), gender-related variation in language use, and written versus spoken language, among others.

Several genres, including informal speech (Schmerling 1973, Thrasher 1977, Napoli 1982), diaries (Haegeman 1990, 1997, 1999, Matushansky 1995, Horsey 1998, Paesani  2006, Weir 2009), newspaper headlines (Stowell 1991, 1996, Paul 2007), and recipes or instruction manuals (Haegeman 1987a, Massam 1989, Massam and Roberge 1989, Sigurdsson and Maling 2007), note taking (Janda 1985), and text messaging, have been fruitfully subjected to comparative syntactic analysis, under the assumption that these genres are associated with the use of particular registers with their own grammatical rules or parameter settings. The registers associated with these genres exhibit grammatical properties that are disallowed in other written and spoken registers of the same languages, but attested in the normal spoken and written registers of other languages, such as subject omission (“pro-drop”), object omission, determiner omission, conjunction omission, and the use of the present tense to report past events.

The following issues will come up in the workshop:

  1. Most studies of register variation have been based on genres of written English; we some of the workshop contributions relate to register variation in other languages.
  2. Are there salient differences between spoken and written registers with respect to syntactic variation? Are (all) distinguishing register-related features of written registers also found in the spoken registers of other languages?
  3. Most of the grammatical properties of the genres of written language cited above involve the omission of grammatical particles that are obligatory in other registers.  Is this a necessary property of register-based syntactic variation? (Cf. Haegeman 1987b, 2002).
  4. Is register-based variation no different, in principle, from dialect-based variation or from the grammatically based target-inconsistencies observed in language acquisition (Rizzi 2006)?
  5. Should register-based variation be explained in terms of register-specific rules of formal grammar, or can it be accounted for in functional terms, and if so, how?


One-day workshop (possibly organised as 2 half days) with 8 to 10 presentations of 40 minutes (25-30 minute presentation 15-10 minutes questions) and a concluding discussion session of 40 minutes.

Scholars who have worked in this area will be invited to  participate.

The following will be among the speakers: Tim Stowell, Liliane Haegeman, Elisabeth Stark, Diane Massam.



Barton, E.L. 1998. The grammar of telegraphic structures. Journal of English Linguistics 26, 37-67.

Bianchi, V. 2006. Subjectless language: Syntactic aspects of S. Beckett's 'Rockaby'. Rivista di Grammatica Generativa 31.

Biber, D. 1995. Dimensions of Register Variation: A Cross-linguistic Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ferguson, C.A. 1982. Simplified registers and linguistic theory. In: L. K. Obler & L. Menn (eds), Exceptional Language and Linguistics. New York: Academic Press. 49-66.

Haegeman, L. 1987a. Register variation in English: Some theoretical observations. Journal of English Linguistics 20, 230-248

Haegeman, L. 1987b. Complexity and literary prose: some suggestions for formalization. Language and Style 20 : 214-222.

Haegeman, L. 1990. Non-overt subjects in diary contexts. In: J. Mascaro & M. Nespor (eds),  Grammar in Progress, GLOW  essays for Henk van Riemsdijk. Dordrecht: Foris. 167-174.

Haegeman, L. 1997. Register variation, truncation and subject omission in English and in French. English Language and Linguistics 1, 233-270.

Haegeman, L. 1999. Adult null subjects in non pro-drop languages. In: M.-A. Friedemann & L. Rizzi (eds.) The Acquisition of Syntax. Addison, Wesley and Longman, London.

Haegeman, L. 2002b. Non-overt subject pronouns in written English. In: S. Scholz, M. Klages, E. Hantson & U. Römer (eds), Language, Context and Cognition. Papers in Honour of Wolf Dietrich Bald’s 60th Birthday. Munchen: Langenscheidt, Longman. 135-149

Haegeman, L & T. Ihsane 1999. Subject ellipsis in embedded clauses in English. Journal of English Language and Linguistics 3, 117-45.

Haegeman, L. 2002. Sentence-medial NP-adjuncts in English. Nordic Journal of Linguistics 25: 79-108.

Horsey, R. 1998. Null Arguments in English Registers. A Minimalist Account, BA thesis, La Trobe University, Australia.

Ihsane, T. 1998.. The syntax of diaries: grammar and register variation. Uni. of Geneva. Ms

Janda, R. J. 1985. Note-taking English as a simplified register. Discourse Processes 8, 437-454.

Massam, D. 1989. Null objects and non-thematic subjects. Journal of Linguistics 28, 115-137.

Massam, D. & Roberge, Y. 1989. Recipe context null subjects. Linguistic Inquiry 20, 134-139.

Matushansky, O. 1995. Le sujet nul dans les propositions à temps fini en anglais. Maîtrise paper, Paris VIII.

Napoli, D. 1982. Initial material deletion in English. Glossa 16 : 85-111.

Newmeyer, F. 2003. Grammar is grammar and usage is usage. Language 79, 682-707.

Progovac L., K. Paesani, E. Casielles & E. Barton. 2006. The Syntax of Non-sententials. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Rizzi, L. 2006. Grammatically-based target-inconsistencies in child language. In: Deen, K.U., J. Nomura, B. Schulz & B.D. Schwartz (eds), The Proceedings of the Inaugural Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition -North America (GALANA). UCONN / MIT Working Papers in Linguistics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Schmerling, S. 1973. Subjectless sentences and the notion of surface structure. In: C. Corum, T. C. Smith & A. Weiser (eds), Papers from the Ninth Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society. 577-586.

Sigurđsson H.A. & J. Maling. 2007. Argument drop and the Empty Left Edge Condition (ELEC). Ms. Lund University-Brandeis University.

Stowell, T. 1991  "Abbreviated English" GLOW Newsletter March 1991.

Stowell, T. 1996.  Empty heads in abbreviated English. Ms. UCLA .

Thrasher, R. 1977. One Way to Say More by Saying Less. A Study of so-called Subjectless Sentences. Kwansei Gakuin University Monograph Series Vol. 11, The Eihosha Ltd, Tokyo.

Weir, A. 2009. Subject pronoun drop in informal English.  Richard M. Hogg Prize winning essay.

Wilder, C. 1994. Some properties of ellipsis in coordination. Geneva Generative Papers 2, 2, 23-61. Also in: A. Alexiadou & T.A. Hall (eds.) (1997) Studies in Universal Grammar and Typological Variation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 59-107.

Zwicky, A.M. & A.D. Zwicky. 1982. Register as a dimension of linguistic variation. In: R. Kittredge & J. Lehrberger (eds), Sublanguage. 213-8.

26.07.2013   10:30-12:30

Chair: Tim STOWELL

10:30 - 11:00 Liliane HAEGEMAN
Register variation and formal syntax
> read abstract...
11:00 - 11:30 Amy LINDSTROM
Didn’t see that coming: an analysis of unexpressed subjects in English discourse
> read abstract...
11:30 - 12:00 Elisabeth STARK et al.
The grammar of text messaging
> read abstract...
12:00 - 12:30 all et al.

26.07.2013   14:00-16:00

Chair: Liliane HAEGEMAN

14:00 - 14:30 Albert OOSTERHOF
Determiner drop in Dutch headlines
> read abstract...
14:30 - 15:00 Tim STOWELL
The syntax of Abbreviated English
> read abstract...
15:00 - 15:30 Andrew WEIR
Pronoun drop and article drop: a unified analysis
> read abstract...
15:30 - 16:00 all et al.

27.07.2013   09:00-10:30

Chair: Elisabeth STARK

09:00 - 09:30 Ingo REICH
Accounting for omitted articles and copulae in headlines
> read abstract...
09:30 - 10:00 Diane MASSAM
Varieties of 'be' in spoken English
> read abstract...
10:00 - 10:30 all et al.
Final discussion