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Review of  It-extraposition and Non-extraposition in English

Reviewer: Marcus Callies
Book Title: It-extraposition and Non-extraposition in English
Book Author: Gunther Kaltenböck Holger Klein Manfred Markus Herbert Schendl
Publisher: Wilhelm Braumüller
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 16.1543

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Date: Thu, 12 May 2005 12:18:34 +0200
From: Marcus Callies <>
Subject: It-extraposition and Non-extraposition in English

AUTHOR: Kaltenböck, Gunther
TITLE: It-extraposition and Non-extraposition in English
SUBTITLE: A study of syntax in spoken and written texts
SERIES: Austrian Studies in English, Vol 90
PUBLISHER: Wilhelm Braumüller
YEAR: 2004

Marcus Callies, Department of English, Philipps-Universität Marburg,

The present book offers a corpus-based description of the formal syntactic
and discourse-functional characteristics of it- and non-extraposition in
contemporary British English on the basis of material taken from the
British component of the International Corpus of English (ICE-GB). Its aim
is to provide "a detailed account of the communicative properties of it-
extraposition and non-extraposition"(p.2) by means of both a quantitative
statistical and close qualitative textlinguistic analysis.

Chapter 1 consists of the introduction, which outlines the scope and
structure of the book, advocates the corpus-linguistic approach of the
investigation, and sketches the make-up and characteristics of the
database. Chapter 2 summarizes previous descriptive-functional,
transformational and corpus-based research on extraposition, while chapter
3 provides the necessary terminological and conceptual framework,
delimiting it-extraposition from related constructions (right-dislocation,
it-clefting, tough-movement) and non-extraposition. Chapter 4 outlines the
formal characteristics of both object- and subject-it-extraposition (and
non-extraposition) and discusses the various subtypes of finite (that- and
wh-clause) and non-finite subordinate clauses (to-, for/to—infinitives
and -ing-clause) that typically occur. Kaltenböck also pays attention to
frequent combination patterns with different types of syntactic and
semantic categories of the matrix predicates.

Chapter 5 discusses the discourse-functional properties of it- and non-
extraposition. In finding explanations for the question what determines
the choice of either structural variant in texts, Kaltenböck draws on the
concepts of information status (given and new information), thematic
structure and syntactic weight. Using a slightly modified version of
Prince's (1981, 1992) taxonomy of assumed familiarity and her distinction
between discourse-old/discourse-new information and hearer-old/hearer-new
information, he distinguishes between two basic informational types of it-
and non-extraposition, whose formal and functional properties are further
analyzed and discussed in the subsequent sections.

Chapter 6 discusses syntactic, semantic, and register factors that
influence the choice of non-extraposition. Chapter 7 consists of a brief
summary and conclusion. The volume is rounded off by a bibliography and a
subject index.

The book presents an in-depth descriptive analysis of it- and non-
extraposition in a wide range of different text types, offering extensive
quantitative data. Its focus being a discourse-functional description and
explanation of the occurrence of the two structural variants, the volume
provides a detailed investigation of their respective communicative
functions in spoken and written texts, using a wealth of naturally-
occurring examples. Kaltenböck's study confirms and advances both the
formal syntactic and discourse-functional characteristics of it- and non-
extraposition that have been identified in previous research. Thus, he
shows that despite their close structural and semantic relationship, the
two variants behave quite differently and are usually not exchangeable.

The investigation yields detailed statistical results for the occurrence
of two variants according to the type of extraposed subject/object clause.
These frequency counts show that object-extraposition can be considered a
marginal phenomenon, since it is clearly outnumbered by subject-
extraposition (p.65). As for subject-extraposition, it-extraposition
predominates over non-extraposition in that-clauses, the for/to-
construction and the to-infinitive (cf. Erdmann 1988:330f. and 1990:135).
Wh-clauses show no clear preference for either structural variant, because
it- and non-extraposition are almost evenly distributed (p.125). By
contrast, -ing-clauses strongly disprefer extraposition (p.152), which is
in line with earlier findings that gerund-participles extrapose less
readily and generally than content clauses and infinitivals. Extraposed -
ing-clauses appear to be uncommon except in informal speech, and are of
dubious acceptance in comparison to extraposed infinitivals and the basic
forms (Ward, Birner and Huddleston 2002:1407).

Thus, despite the fact that the variants with a clausal subject/object are
sometimes claimed to be the syntactically more basic ones since they are
simpler and exhibit canonical word order, it is in fact the extraposed
variants which are much more frequent. Consequently, as Kaltenböck argues -
drawing on Givóns (1995) criteria for markedness - they should be
considered as the statistically unmarked counterparts (cf. also Mair
1990:29; Biber et al. 1999:676,725), because they reflect the general
preference for light subjects in English (Mair 1990:40).

As for spoken and written English, the results demonstrate that while it-
extraposition is clearly preferred over non-extraposition in both modes
(90.2% in spoken, 87.5% in written English), non-extraposition is more
likely to occur in writing, for the written subcorpus contains almost
twice as many such instances as the spoken part (79 vs. 138 instances).
Regarding the different types of non-extraposed clauses, Kaltenböck
observes that only non-extraposed wh-clauses are almost equally
distributed in both modes (48.8% in the spoken vs. 51.2% in the spoken
part), whereas with all other types he finds that their non-extraposed
variants predominate in writing (70.6% for to-infinitivals, 62.5% for -ing-
clauses and even 100% for that-clauses).

Ward, Birner and Huddleston (2002:1403-1408) have demonstrated that the
(in-)felicity of non-extraposed clauses is best explained in terms of
three interacting factors: context, syntactic weight and processability,
none of which alone can explain the preference/occurrence of one or the
other construction. Similarly, Biber et al. (1999:676ff.,724ff.; see also
Mair 1990:32-40 for a similar account) have argued that four grammatical
and discourse factors influence the preference for the non-extraposed over
the extraposed variant: register, information structure, grammatical
complexity, and topic and personal style. Kaltenböck's study confirms
these assumptions that it is in fact a conspiracy of several formal
syntactic and discourse-functional factors that determine the choice among
it- or non-extraposition.

As for the information status of either variant, the author distinguishes
between two basic informational types of it-extraposition and non-
extraposition, respectively: for it-extraposition, there is type I which
contains an extraposed clause with given, contextually retrievable
information (either directly or via inferences), and type II, whose
extraposed clause consists of new, brand-new or new-anchored information
(p.181). Similarly, non-extraposition occurs with two types of clausal
subjects: type I contains given, contextually retrievable information, and
type II consists of new information (p.251). Kaltenböck's analysis clearly
shows that non-extraposed subject clauses predominantly contain
retrievable information (174 out of 217 instances, 80.2%), whereas
extraposed clausal subjects largely consist of new information (1217 out
of 1701 instances, 71.5%; p.181,251). Similar findings have been reported
by Biber et al. (1999:677,725), Miller (2001), and Ward, Birner and
Huddleston (2002:1404f.).

The author also demonstrates that syntactic weight plays a major role in
the choice between it- and non-extraposition, which means that it is a
construction that strongly interacts with the principle of end-weight in
English. In it-extraposition, the extraposed clause is on average three
times longer (measured in number of words) than its matrix clause, in both
speaking and writing (p.206f.). By contrast, in non-extraposition the
matrix and the subordinate clause are much more balanced in terms of
weight distribution. Kaltenböck's findings reveal that their average
length is identical (p.263). However, there is a noticeable difference
between the spoken and written mode: in writing, the clausal subject is in
fact longer than the matrix clause. For explanation, Kaltenböck argues
that processing factors are more immediately relevant in speaking than
writing, and that the occurrence of unusually long subject clauses, which
runs counter to the end-weight principle, is outweighed by the fact that
they serve a specific communicative effect. The author concludes that
weight distribution may only be of limited importance for the occurrence
non-extraposition and can be overridden by other factors such as
felicitous information distribution (given vs. new) and more specific
communicative functions (p.265). This is an interesting finding in view of
the fact that to explain and predict the rare occurrence of heavy clausal
subjects, previous accounts have predominantly drawn on weight
distribution and processing factors, both of which are likely to
facilitate comprehension by reducing and simplifying unnecessarily complex
and informationally packed subjects (Erdmann 1988:337f.; Ward, Birner and
Huddleston 2002:1403,1405).

In sum, this is an impressive and very detailed study with a large amount
of very valuable data from a researcher who has already published on this
syntactic phenomenon (Kaltenböck 2000, 2003). His study convincingly
demonstrates that extraposition is a prime example for the interaction of
the structural and discourse-pragmatic dimensions of information
structure: sentence position, information status, and syntactic weight. It
allows for an information-structural organization where both structural
and textual requirements are fulfilled.

Biber, Douglas et al., eds. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written
English. Harlow: Longman.

Erdmann, Peter (1988) "On the Principle of 'Weight' in English", in Duncan-
Rose, Caroline and Theo Vennemann (eds.), On Language: Rhetorica,
Phonologica, Syntactica. Festschrift for Robert P. Stockwell from His
Friends & Colleagues. London: Routledge, 325-339.

Erdmann, Peter (1990) Discourse and Grammar: Focusing and Defocusing in
English. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Givón, Talmy (1995) Functionalism and Grammar. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Kaltenböck, Gunther (2000) "It-Extraposition and Non-Extraposition in
English Discourse", in Mair, Christian and Marianne Hundt (eds.) Corpus
Linguistics and Linguistic Theory. Papers from the Twentieth International
Conference on English Language Research on Computerized Corpora (ICAME
20), Freiburg im Breisgau 1999. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 157-175.

Kaltenböck, Gunther (2003) "On the Syntactic and Semantic Status of
Anticipatory It", English Language and Linguistics 7:2, 235-255.

Mair, Christian (1990) Infinitival Complement Clauses in English. A Study
of Syntax in Discourse. Cambridge: CUP.

Miller, Philip H. (2001) "Discourse Constraints on (Non)Extraposition from
Subject in English", Linguistics 39:4, 683-701.

Prince, Ellen F. (1981) "Toward a taxonomy of given/new information", in
Cole, Peter (ed.), Radical Pragmatics, New York: Academic Press, 223-255.

Prince, Ellen F. (1992) "The ZPG letter: subjects, definiteness, and
information-status", in Thompson, Sandra and W. Mann (eds.), Discourse
Description: Diverse Analyses of a Fund Raising Text, Amsterdam:
Benjamins, 295-325.

Ward, Gregory, Betty Birner and Rodney Huddleston (2002) "Information
packaging", in Huddleston, Rodney and Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds.), The
Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge: CUP, 1363-1443.

Marcus Callies is a junior lecturer and doctoral candidate in English
Linguistics at Philipps-University Marburg, Germany. He teaches
undergraduate courses in English Linguistics for teacher, BA and MA
students, such as an introductory linguistics class and seminars on
methods of linguistic description, phonology, morphology, semantics and
syntax. His main research interests are contrastive linguistics (German-
English) and second language acquisition (with a focus on discourse-
functional aspects of learner language and interlanguage pragmatics).

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