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From Hwæt to Whattup: A Bibliography of the History of English (July 2014): Syntax

by Edwin Battistella


A number of studies focus on the evolution of English syntax.  F. T. Visser’s An Historical Syntax of the English Language classifies English grammatical constructions based on verbal types illustrated extensively with citations from the OED and later historical dictionaries.  Period grammars include Bruce Mitchell’s comprehensive two-volume Old English Syntax; Tauno Mustanoja’s accessible but sometimes dated A Middle English Syntax; and Manfred Görlach’s textbook Introduction to Early Modern English, translated from German.  For modern English, the best resource is Richard Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum’s nearly 1,900-page The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which is both theoretically interesting and empirically rich.

David Denison’s English Historical Syntax: Verbal Constructions, aimed at advanced undergraduates, combines detailed surveys of data with overviews of scholarly research.  Denison discusses explanations for changes in chapters on word order, the loss of impersonal constructions, the modern prepositional passive with by, various types of subordination, and auxiliary verbs.  The Syntax of Early English by Olga Fischer et al. treats the most significant grammatical changes that occurred from Old to Modern English—changes in word order, infinitival constructions, and processes by which content words become grammatical markers.  Fischer and her fellow authors follow the path set by David Lightfoot’s Principles of Diachronic Syntax, emphasizing the connection between generative linguistic theory, language acquisition, and grammar change.  Other studies focus on particular changes; among these works is Anne Curzan’s Gender Shifts in the History of English, which analyzes the loss of gender distinctions and the shifts from grammatical to natural gender systems.

Works Cited