Chapter in:English Noun Phrases from a Functional-Cognitive Perspective: Current issues
Edited by Lotte Sommerer and Evelien Keizer
[Studies in Language Companion Series 221] 2022
Time-measurement constructions in English
A corpus-based exploration
Time-measurement expressions such as five-year plan, 10 years’ time and 25 years service occur frequently in English. All such expressions consist of a cardinal numeral, followed by a time-noun (N1) then a second noun (N2). The time-noun has one of three orthographic forms: the bare-form, the S-form with apostrophe or the S-form without apostrophe. Using a dataset of 17,591 time-measurement tokens from the British National Corpus and mixed-effects logistic regression modelling, this chapter tests the hypothesis that these three orthographic forms represent three different constructions. Our first model, using only expressions with S-form N1, shows that the presence or absence of an apostrophe is not correlated with any other formal or semantic property that would justify the recognition of two constructions. In contrast, our second model using the whole dataset, shows that bare-form N1 and S-form N1 (with or without apostrophe) are highly correlated with aspects of both form and meaning. In our dataset, 96% of tokens with bare-form N1 have a countable N2 and 87% also follow a determiner. Conversely, 94% of tokens with S-form N1 have an uncountable N2, and 91% also lack a determiner. We conclude that these clusters of properties represent distinct pairings of form and meaning, and are therefore characteristic of two different constructions, which we call the time-measurement compound construction and the time-measurement construction respectively. The time-measurement compound construction (five-year plan) has the distribution of a nominal; semantically, it denotes a kind of bounded entity (N2) with some relation to numeral-N1, usually duration. The time-measurement construction (10 years’ time, 25 years service) has the distribution of a noun phrase; semantically, it denotes a quantity (numeral-N1) of some unbounded entity (N2). The chapter ends with a qualitative exploration of the central and more peripheral representatives of the two constructions, including borderline cases.