Edited by Sylvie Hancil and Vittorio Tantucci
[Studies in Language Companion Series 232] 2023
► pp. 124–146
In grammaticalization, functional reanalysis and formal reduction are often regarded as elements of a unified diachronic process, though rooted in general communicative and cognitive preferences. The present study tests these claims in synchronic language use by investigating potential cases of grammaticalization. Epistemic phrases of the type (it) could/might be (that) in English are potential candidates for grammaticalizing into sentence adverb(ial)s. The question is whether shorter forms (here, it-omission) are preferred in potentially grammaticalizing contexts, e.g. modifying a main clause ((it) could be this is correct). I first summarize a corpus study, where overall higher rates of it-omission are found in critical context across items (could be, might be) and register (spoken, informal writing). A ‘continuous shadowing’ experiment partly confirms this finding but also shows that speakers/hearers are both more flexible and more conservative with could/might be than with maybe / it may be that. The findings suggest that grammaticalizing contexts have an immediate effect on formal reduction even in the absence of change, and that language users have an active intuition for emerging variational patterns.