A survey of grammatical variability in Early Modern English drama

Andrew Hardie, Isolde van Dorst

Publication: Scientific journalJournal articlepeer-review


Grammar is one of the levels within the language system at which authorial choices of one mode of expression over others must be examined to characterise in full the style of the author. Such choices must however be assessed in the context of an understanding of the extent of variability that exists generally in the language. This study investigates a set of grammatical features to understand their variability in Early Modern English drama, and the extent to which Shakespeare’s grammatical style is distinct from or similar to that of his contemporaries in so far as these features are concerned. A review of prior works on Shakespeare’s grammar establishes that the quantitatively informed corpus linguistic approach utilised in this study is innovative to this topic.

Using two of the grammatically annotated corpora created by the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language project, one made up of Shakespeare’s plays, one of plays by other playwrights of the period, we present a method which steers a course between the narrow focus of close reading and the naïvely quantitative metrics of authorship analysis. For a set of 15 grammatical features of stylistic interest, we retrieve all instances of each feature in each play via complex corpus search patterns and calculate its relative frequency. These results are then considered, in aggregate and at the text level, to assess the differences across plays, across dramatic genre, and between Shakespeare and the other dramatists, via both statistical summary and visual representation of variability.

We find that Shakespeare’s grammatical style tends (especially in comedies and tragedies) to disprefer informationally dense noun phrases relative to the other playwrights; and, moreover, to prefer tense, aspect and pronoun features which suggest a greater degree of narrative focus in his style. Furthermore, we find Shakespeare to b...
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)275 - 301
JournalLanguage and Literature
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Austrian Classification of Fields of Science and Technology (ÖFOS)

  • 602011 Computational linguistics
  • 602004 General linguistics
  • 602008 English studies

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