Signs o’ the times – some/any invariant meanings and COCA

I am glad to be writing this particular (rushed, see end) post as it involves corpus linguistics and I have not done such a post for a while. It is also about my current interest – Columbia School linguistics.

I have been over the years less enamored of the power of corpus linguistics for language teaching. It is certainly very useful to access descriptions of language but that is not enough. Explanations are also needed. Columbia School (CS) linguistics is about analyzing invariant meanings that motivate choices in both grammar and lexis. It is about one form to one meaning mappings – an ideal aim when looking to help students.

Nadav Sabar in 2016 analyses the use of some and any. The following borrows heavily from this paper.

Most pedagogical grammars state (formal) rules such as “any is used in negative sentences and not in affirmative statements”. Yet such rules cannot account for why some is used in contexts that are said to be used for any. Sabar gives the following attested example:

1) When Yvonne lived in Italy, where it seems like the whole country is married, people always wanted to know about her personal life. I remember her telling me that every time she’d come back from a great vacation, the first question from married friends was, “Did you meet anybody?” It was as if the whole point of going on vacation was to meet someone. That she had a great time and saw something new and interesting didn’t matter. The entire vacation was cancelled or a flop because she didn’t meet someone. (

Formal accounts could only say that any is also acceptable as in she didn’t meet anyone and is unconcerned with why the writer chose some in this case.

Formal accounts use the sentence as unit of analysis and see meaning as compositional – i.e. the meanings of individual words in a sentence add to the whole. CS uses signs (pairing of symbol to meaning) as the unit of analysis and sees meaning as instrumental rather than compositional. That is the individual meanings of signals need not add up to sentence meaning. There is a distinction between linguistic code that has an invariant meaning (that always corresponds to a linguistic signal) and interpretation of the code which is the subjective outcome of messages. Meanings are very sparse in that they do not encode messages but only offer prompts that may only suggest message elements.

The meaning hypothesis of some and any are shown below:

I.e. some as RESTRICTED suggests limits, internal divisions, boundaries while any as UNRESTRICTED suggests no boundaries, limits or divisions. Note that this does not mean that the domain in question in reality has no divisions or boundaries. Just that the reality is irrelevant to the message. Also note that in a pedagogical grammar such as Martin Parrott’s this meaning division between restricted and unrestricted is only described for stressed SOME and ANY.

Sabar uses the following as examples:

2) If you see something, say something. (New York City public safety slogan)
3) No parking any time (street sign)

In 2) some is used because the message suggested is a restriction on the set of things people see and say. The context drives the inference as to the nature of the restriction – suspicious looking things. Any could also have been used but that would not have been as effective a message – any would have suggested no restriction i.e. people should call no matter what they see.

Similarly in 3) any is used because there is no restriction on the domain of times of the day.

So now for 1) we can see some is used because the message suggests a restriction of the set of people Yvonne did not meet, and the context shows that this restriction as people who may qualify as marriage potential.

Now the interesting corpus linguistics part.

The methodology of CS first involves a qualitative step where some aspect of the sign in question is looked at. So for some which suggests restriction another element which suggests the same is looked for:

4) Some Feds [Federal workers] are held up as national heroes while others are considered a national joke. (ABC Nightline: Income Tax)

Here others is used to refer to a different subset of people within the domain of Federal workers. This message element is also suggested by some – RESTRICTED. This does not mean there is only one reason for the choice of these forms rather that this message feature of internal division is one reason out of many possible reasons that has motivated the choice of these two forms.

To test this claim generally we can look at a corpus to see if there is a higher than probable chance that others occurs with some more than others occurs with any.

We can do this in COCA by using these search terms:

COCA searches for others:

Favoured Disfavoured
some [up to 9 slots] others any [up to 9 slots] others

The following screenshot shows how to find some [up to 9 slots] others (do similar for any):

To find some with not others see the next screenshot (i.e. use the minus sign -):

And tabulating the data in a contingency table:

others present others absent
N % N %
some 19078 90 8946046 65
any 2022 10 4841946 35
Total 21100 100 13787992 100

p < .0001

The table percentages and significance test supports the claim that there is one message feature that motivates use of both some and others. Note that the meaning hypothesis itself is not directly tested; it is only indirectly tested via the counts in COCA. Sabar goes onto to test both qualitatively and quantitatively other signals that contribute to the meaning hypothesis of some – RESTRICTED and any – UNRESTRICTED.

I wondered how the singular other would distribute with any and some:

other present other absent
N % N %
any 39244 52 4811937 35
some 35175 48 8930621 65
Total 74419 100 13742558 100

p < .0001

Here can we say that singular other contributes to a message meaning of unrestricted? I have no idea as I have not had time to explore this further!

I hope dear reader you forgive the rushed nature of this post but I wanted to get something up before the risk of forgetting this due to holiday haze!

Thanks for indulging.

Update 1:

Thanks to heads up from some tweeters Michael Lewis in his book The English Verb in 1986 was also pointing to the primacy of meaning:

Update 2:

Nadav Sabar has pointed out that he looked for others in one direction i.e. following some/any whereas I looked at occurrence of others both following and before some/any.
Plus in a new version of his paper a window size of 2 is used instead of 9.


Parrott, M. (2000). Grammar for English language teachers: with exercises and a key. Cambridge University Press.

Sabar, N. (2016). Using big data to test meaning hypotheses for any and some. In Otheguy, R., Stern, N., Reid, W. and Ruggles, J. (Eds.) Columbia School linguistics in the 21st century: advances in sign-based linguistics. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Retrieved from []


Article use: from cognitive salience to discourse differentiation

The following borrows heavily from the original paper.

Elena Gorokhova in 1995 reports on a developmental stage description of article use by Spanish L1 learners of English. She follows a description of final state article use that was formulated by William Diver – the founder of Columbia School linguistics which is a sign-based functional linguistics account. A sign is a pairing of a signal with its meaning.

In Diver’s account the/a signals a need to differentiate referents in a piece of discourse while the Ø zero article signals no such need. The signal is used when there is enough information available to differentiate referents and a/an signal is used when there is insufficient information available to differentiate referents. For the Ø zero article four communicative reasons are given:

a) referent is unimportant to message as message is about an associated activity.
He went to Ø bed early (went to sleep on whatever bed)

b) referent important but no chance of confusion
He went Ø home (his home)
He went to Ø school (his school)

c) only one possible referent
Ø Einstein died in Ø Princeton

d) no differentiation among instances needed
Ø Water boils at 100C (any and all water)

The above is represented in the figure below:

Gorokhova then postulates  4 stages based on her longitudinal data which culminate in the Standard English state shown above.

In the first stage learners only have the which is used with cognitively more salient referents. Hence important and visible referents are signaled by the:

In stage II the signal a is acquired. The now in addition to signaling importance is used to mark large size of a visible referent. A signals visible referents smaller in size and which are less important. Note that in stages I and II the and a are used very differently to the end state standard English. In stages I and II they are used to show degrees of attention whilst in the end state standard English they are used to show degrees of differentiation of referents in discourse:

Stage III learners begin to pay attention to the larger discourse although their linguistic value is still based on cognitive salience. Stage III is a transitional stage:

In stage IV discourse plays a significant role in the use of articles. Learners choose the and a on differentiation of referents. Context is used from restrictive clause or noun phrases or successive mention of the same referent. The is also used with familiar referents such as bank, school etc:

In stage V students acquire use of the Ø zero article. Here also “frame anaphora” is evoked by the use of the e.g. Someone is driving and there are people in the back seat. The speaker relies on shared non-linguistic knowledge (driving is usually done in a car which usually has seats) with the hearer. This stage is hard to acquire – of the seventy learners in Gorokhova’s study only two showed Stage V article usage.

Although this study suggests a particular order of acquisition – The > A > Ø Zero article, there is no consensus in the literature. Some studies support this order, others show A > The > Ø Zero article, others show Ø Zero article > The > A.

What is heavily implied though is that due to the discourse effects on article use, articles should not be taught in isolated sentences but with a piece of discourse in addition to background information about the speaker and hearer.

I recently drew Figure 1 and Master’s figure of Classification vs Identification with a student. She preferred Master’s figure as she had trouble understanding the word differentiation. It should be noted in this case of focus on form and meaning there was only a cursory look in response to her question about using articles.

Thanks for reading and do check the Columbia School of linguistics as I believe this approach has a lot of potential for use in class. And do also check some other thoughts on article use here:

  1. Articles and collocational effects
  2. Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use
  3. A, an, the, definiteness and specificity


Gorokhova, E. (1995). Acquisition of English articles by native speakers of Spanish. In Contini-Morava, E. & Goldberg, B. S. (Eds.) Meaning as explanation: Advances in linguistic sign theory,  441-452. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Articles and collocational effects

While I was doing some marking I came across what Master (2007) in discussing article choice has called “overgeneralisations from similar patterns” or effects of collocational phrases.

The following patterns were found in the same essay (on cyber warfare):
1. Those types of attacks are occurring everyday, and are often due to the lack of awareness of the victims.
2. The USA has declared unofficially that they have been under several cyber attacks from China, but with the lack of evidence, they can’t press charges against them.

In 1 article use seems to be okay but in 2 at first glance there seems to be an error i.e. the student should have chosen “a lack of evidence”.

However Master (2007) argues that:

article selection may have been the product of overgeneralization from an already learned collocational phrase rather than from the misapplication of a rule.

In our example we can see that in 1 the student has correctly used “due to the lack of awareness of the victims” whilst in 2 we could argue that the student is implying the thought “with the lack of evidence (that they have)”.

In marking feedback you might consider that since in sentence 1 the student has postmodified “the lack of awareness” with “of the victims” then we could give the student the benefit of the doubt in sentence 2 by saying they are implying a postmodification of “that they have” in the use of definite article in “the lack of evidence”.

Master (2007) found based on 20 low-advanced proficient students doing timed essays that:

more than a quarter of the article “errors” were actually viable choices that should have been honored.

He classed his data into noun phrase structure, modification structure and discourse structure. The noun phrase structures included count/noncount, generic/specific and idioms. The modification structures included pre-modifying ranking adjectives, postmodified/nonmodified, unlimited/limited quantity, partitive/descriptive Of-phrases, intentional vagueness. The discourse structure was first and subsequent mention.

As an example of a count/non-count distinction:

An example of a pedagogical intervention is:

Master (2007) uses two reasons to justify this approach of looking at how students  choose articles. One is that based on Yoon & Bailey (1988), as cited by Masters (2007), “teachers as editors often correct article usage in ways unintended by the original author”. And two based on Sheen (2007), as cited by Masters (2007), metacognitive feedback in addition to corrective feedback can impact student article use more than just corrective feedback.

Furthermore teaching article use in context such as lexical bundles, which are another form of collocation, has shown to be effective (Shin & Kim 2017). It must be noted that the chances of finding what could be called a paired example (as in my student’s two sentences above) may be rare and so giving students more leeway could be harder to justify.

Thanks for reading and if you want to explore more on article use have a read of some previous scribbles on this: Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use and A, an, the, definiteness and specificity.


Master, P. (2007). Article errors and article choices. The CATESOL Journal, 19(1), 107-131. Retrieved from (pdf) []


Shin, Y. K., & Kim, Y. (2017). Using lexical bundles to teach articles to L2 English learners of different proficiencies. System, 69, 79-91.

Finding relative frequencies of tenses in the spoken BNC2014 corpus

Ginseng English‏ @ginsenglish issued a poll on twitter asking:

This is a good exercise to do on the new spoken BN2014 corpus. See instructions to get access to the corpus.

You need to get your head around the parts of speech (POS) tag. The BNC2014 uses CLAWS 6 tagset. For the past tense we can use past tense of lexical verbs and past tense of DO. Using the past tenses of BE and HAVE would also pull in their uses as auxiliary verbs which we don’t want. This could be a neat future exercise in figuring out how to filter out such searches. Another time! Onto this post.

Simple past:


pos = part of speech

VVD = past tense of lexical(main) verbs

VDD = past tense of DO

| = acts like an OR operator

So the above look for parts of speech tagged as either past tense of lexical verbs or past tense of DO.

Simple present

The search term for present simple is also relatively simple to wit:


VVZ     -s form of lexical verb (e.g. gives, works)

Note the above captures third person forms, how can we also catch first and second person forms?

Present perfect

[pos = “VH0|VHZ”] [pos =”R.*|MD|XX” & pos !=”RL”]{0,4} [pos = “AT.*|APPGE”]? [pos = “JJ.*|N.*”]? [pos =”PPH1|PP.*S.*|PPY|NP.*|D.*| NN.*”]{0,2} [pos = “R.*|MD|XX”]{0,4} [pos = “V.*N”]

The search of present perfect may seem daunting; don’t worry the structure is fairly simple, the first search term [pos = “VH0|VHZ”] is saying look for all uses of HAVE and the last term [pos = “VVN”] is saying look for all past participles of lexical verbs.

The other terms are looking for optional adverbs and noun phrases that may come in-between namely

“adverbs (e.g. quite, recently), negatives (not, n’t) or multiword adverbials (e.g. of course, in general); and noun phrases: pronouns or simple NPs consisting of optional premodifiers (such as determiners, adjectives) and nouns. These typically occur in the inverted word order of interrogative utterances (Has he arrived? Have the children eaten yet?)” – Hundt & Smith (2009).

Present progressive

[pos = “VBD.*|VBM|VBR|VBZ”] [pos =”R.*|MD|XX” & pos !=”RL”]{0,4} [pos = “AT.*|APPGE”]? [pos = “JJ.*|N.*”]? [pos =”PPH1|PP.*S.*|PPY|NP.*|D.*| NN.*”]{0,2} [pos = “R.*|MD|XX”]{0,4} [pos = “VVG”]

A similar structure to the present perfect search. The first term [pos = “VBD.*|VBM|VBR|VBZ”]  is looking for past and present forms of BE and the last term [pos = “VVG”] for all ing participle of lexical verb. The terms in between are for optional adverb, negatives and noun phrases.

Note that all these searches are approximate – manual checking will be needed for more accuracy.

So can you predict the order of these forms? Let me know in the comments the results of using these search terms in frequency per million.

Thanks for reading.

Other search terms in spoken BNC2014 corpus.


Ginseng English blogs about frequencies of forms found in one study. Do note that as there are 6 inflectional categories in English – infinitive, first and second person present, third person singular present, progressive, past tense, and past participle, the opportunities to use the simple present form is greater due to the 2 categories of present.


Hundt, M., & Smith, N. (2009). The present perfect in British and American English: Has there been any change, recently. ICAME journal, 33(1), 45-64. (pdf) Available from

Classified and Identified – A pedagogical grammar for article use

1990 was a good year for music – Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, Primal Scream, James, House of Love. 1990 was also good for what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pedagogical grammars for article instruction – Peter Master’s paper Teaching the English Articles as a Binary System published in TESOL Quarterly.

It is a pedagogical grammar because it simplifies the four main characteristics of articles definiteness[+/-definite], specificity[+/-specific], countability[+/-count] and number[+/-singular] into two bigger concepts namely classification and identification. So 0 or no article and a/an is used to classify and the used to identify.

As discussed in a previous post the two main features of articles are definiteness and specificity. So the four possible combinations are:
1a. [-definite][+specific] A tick entered my ear.
b. [-definite][-specific] A tick carries disease.
c. [+definite][+specific] The computer is down today.
d. [+definite][-specific] The computer is changing our lives

Master’s binary scheme emphasizes 1b and 1c at the expense of 1a and 1d. That is +identification feature describes [+definite][+specific] and -identification or classification describes [-definite] [-specific].

The effect of ignoring specificity in indefinite uses is saying all uses of no article or a/an is essentially generic. Whether we mean a specific, actual tick as in 1a or a generic one as in 1b we still classify that tick when using the article a. Paraphrased as something that can be classified as a tick entered my ear/carries disease.

The effect of ignoring specificity in definite uses is saying that all uses of the are essentially specific. Although the difference between 1c and 1d is significant we can rely on the fact that generic the is relatively infrequent. Further some argue that generic the is not very different from specific the. The identified quality of a generic noun like the computer is held onto. We do not classify one-of-a-group for computer until we interpret the rest of the sentence. And when we understand the noun as requiring a generic interpretation we seem to see such interpretation through the individual. So generic the is considered as “the identification of a class

Master goes on to give some advice for teaching classification. For instance, have students sort a pile of objects into categories – These are books/These are pencils/This is paper/This is a pen.

For identification have students identify members in the categories – This is the blue book/These are the red pencils/This is the A4 paper/This is the new pen.

In addition teach them that proper nouns, possessive determiners (my, her), possessive ’s (the girl’s), demonstratives (this, that) and some other determiners (e.g. either/neither,each, every) —> identify; while no article , a/an, and determiners such as some/any one —> classify.
Countability only needs to be considered for classified nouns as identified nouns require the whether they be countable or not.

Master then provides the following chart:

After the concepts of classification and identification are presented and practiced details of use can be shown as in the table below:

From Master, 2002

I won’t repeat what Master says as I have already done too much of that. Once you read Master’s paper the two figures can be used as a memory aid.

Master says that discourse effects of article use (e.g. given/theme and new/rheme) can be matched onto his binary schema i.e. given info is identification and new info is classification. And that for many noun phrase uses of article such as ranking adjectives, world shared knowledge, descriptive vs partitive of phrases, intentional vagueness, proper nouns and idiomatic phrases there is no need to go beyond the sentence unless first/subsequent mention is a involved.

Thanks for reading.


Master, P. (1990). Teaching the English articles as a binary system. Tesol Quarterly, 24(3), 461-478.
Master, P. (2002). Information structure and English article pedagogy. System, 30(3), 331-348.

A, an, the, definiteness and specificity

This is my attempt at recombobulating my thoughts on article use. Information is mainly drawn from Ionin, Ko & Wexler (2004) and Thornbury (2009). All errors mine.

The following are the (informal) definitions used by Ionin, Ko & Wexler (2004) for definiteness and specificity:

[+definite] the speaker and hearer presuppose the existence of a unique individual

[+specific] the speaker intends to refer to a unique individual and considers this individual to possess some noteworthy property

Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.5

The paper argues that English as a two article system (a/an, the) favours the definite-indefinite categorization hence the is definite and a indefinite and it does not mark any articles for specificity. Other languages like Samoan favour the specific-nonspecific categorization where they use le with specific and se with non-specific and does not mark any articles for definiteness.

Side note: apparently in spoken English this can be used to specify nouns (i.e. referential use of this vs demonstrative use) hence we can consider also that English is a three-article system!

The theory is that learners fluctuate between categorizing nouns on definiteness and categorizing nouns on specificity until they eventually settle on definiteness as their proficiency grows.

Both systems of definiteness and specificity predict that learners will use one article the for definite specific and one article a for indefinite non-specific.
However these systems differ on what article will be used with specific indefinites and non-specific definites.

That is the definiteness system will group specific definites with non-specific definites i.e. predict use of the article the; and will group specific indefinites with non-specific indefinites i.e. predict the use of the article a. See Table 1:


Table 1, Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.13

By contrast the specificity system will do the opposite – it will group definite specifics with indefinite specifics i.e. predict the use of the article the; and it will group definite non-specifics with indefinite non-specifics i.e. predict the use of the article a. See Table 2:


Table 2, Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.13

This means that the theory will predict overuse of the article the in specific indefinites and overuse of the article a in non-specific definites. See Table 3:


Table 3, adapted from Ionin, Ko & Wexler, 2004, p.19

So what does this mean for teaching articles? Not sure but knowing that learners will tend to overuse the with indefinites and overuse a/an with definites due to the conflict with the specificity system is enlightening. Further I found the definitions in the paper very useful as I was confused about how specificity was different from definiteness.

I’ll put here a revised table (Table 4) from Scott Thornbury’s blog on articles that does not have the confusing (for me) label general and colour coded for overuse as in Table 3 above.


Table 4, adapted from Thornbury, 2009

Finally for your students do check Glenys Hanson’s exercises and flowchart.

Thanks for reading.


Ionin, T., Ko, H., & Wexler, K. (2004). Article semantics in L2 acquisition: The role of specificity. Language Acquisition, 12(1), 3-69.

Thornbury, S. (2009). A is for Articles (1) – An AZ of ELT – Retrieved April 2, 2016, from

Impassive Pullum on Passives

There’s a regular module I do at one school on writing about processes coming up soon. So a focus here is on use of passive clauses in such contexts. For years I was happily ignorant, induced by inaccurate instruction from books, about this grammar area. So it was a blessing to read and watch noted linguist Geoffrey Pullum pull apart such advice.

As an exercise for me to try to remember his counsel I knocked up three infographics, some work better than others. The information for these graphics come from Fear and Loathing of the English Passive (html); the 6 part video series Pullum on Passives  and On the myths that passives are wordy (pdf).

Types of Passives


Real rules for Passives


Allegations against Passives


Note that Pullum is not really impassive more impassioned but that makes the title of this post less groovy : )

Hope these are of use to you, thanks for reading.