Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

A Corpus-Driven Analysis of the Uses of English Polarity Expressions between Native Speakers and Chinese Learners

Academic journal article International Journal of English Linguistics

A Corpus-Driven Analysis of the Uses of English Polarity Expressions between Native Speakers and Chinese Learners

Article excerpt


This paper briefly introduces the Open Choice Principle, the Idiom Principle and the Affective-polarity Theory to suggest that language use is not as random as it is assumed to be, and many words and phrases can only occur in certain contexts. Meanwhile, it discusses the uses of three English polarity expressions: care a damn, lifta finger, and have ever done by using the four corpora LOB, BROWN, BNC online, and CLEC and finds out that care a damn, lifta finger are used in affective contexts by native speakers but are not acquired by most Chinese learners; have ever done is also used in affective contexts by native speakers but is often used in the wrong contexts by Chinese learners. Thus, the paper concludes that Chinese learners need to understand the underlying constraints of sentence construction so as to better grasp English.

Keywords: Affective context, Polarity expression, Corpus

1. Introduction

How to express a meaning appropriately is the key issue in the process of second language acquisition. Second language learners tend to believe that when they know the semantic meanings of a word or a phrase, they can express the corresponding meaning of the word or the phrase correctly. However, based on the modern corpus data evidence collected from LOB, BROWN, BNC, and CLEC, this proves to be a wrong belief. Using corpus for language research is becoming mainstream (M. Halliday, 1991; G. Leech, 1993), because corpus-based approach can be efficiently applied to empirical investigations in almost any area of linguistics from a use perspective. Further, corpus-based methods can also be used to study a variety of topics within linguistics (Biber, Conrad and Reppen, 2000). Many corpus-based analyses have been made to deepen the understanding of languages in this world and those analyses have consequently been of great help in facilitating language learning as well as language teaching.

In the light of the comparative data of the above-mentioned corpus evidence, this paper aims to demonstrate that every word and phrase should be used in the right structure and right context so that they can be appropriately expressed. Sinclair (2004) states that the basic unit of meaning in a text is the lexical item, and grammar plays a role in the management of meaning, the assembly of constituents, and the componence of lexical items, which means when a certain meaning is conveyed or realized, lexical item and grammar are working integrally and simultaneously. But Sinclair also claims that grammar does not directly assist creation of meaning by grammatical choice, though it is vital for efficient communication, and the main role in meaning creation is in the lexical item.

2. The Open Choice Principle and the Idiom Principle

As to explaining how meaning arises from language text, Sinclair (1991) puts forwards two modes of interpretation: the Open Choice Principle and the Idiom Principle. Sinclair holds that no single principle is satisfactory enough and they complement each other.

1) The Open Choice Principle:

This is a way of seeing language text as the result of a very large number of complex choices. At each point where a unit is completed (a word or a phrase or a clause), a large range of choice opens up, and the only restraint is grammaticalness.

This principle describes language as a "slot-and-filler" mode by envisaging text as a series of slots which have to be filled from a lexicon that satisfies local restraints. The tree structure can illustrate this mode intuitively and clearly, that is, the nodes on the tree are choice points, and items from certain word class may appear as leaves of each node.

However, it is found in practice that possible slot (or node) choices are massively reduced. In fact, native speakers of a certain language do not exercise the potential creativity of their syntactic rules. In other words, the sentences they produce are not so multifarious as they are expected according to the Open Choice Principle. …

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