Dr. Yoko Iyeiri English Department
Kyoto University, Japan.

Recent Grammatical Changes in Contemporary British English: Verb Complementation in Academic Writing


This paper discusses some recent changes in the usage of the verb “forbid” in English. Despite the statement in dictionaries and grammars that it is usually followed by to- infinitive, it is increasingly followed by gerund complements in contemporary English. This paper examines this alleged tendency by analyzing some corpora, and concludes that the increase of the gerund complementation in English will be further accelerated in the near future.

Recent Grammatical Changes in Contemporary British English: Verb Complementation in Academic Writing*

Yoko Iyeiri

The present paper discusses some recent changes in English verb complementation, highlighting in particular the verb forbid. Despite the description in dictionaries and grammars that the same verb is usually followed by to-infinitives, it is increasingly followed by gerund complements in contemporary English: Dixon (1991: 236), for example, states that “[o]ne hears both She forbade him to go and She forbade him from going, with no difference in meaning”, while commenting at the same time that the construction with gerunds “accords better with the negative meaning of this verb”. It is also commonly pointed out in existing studies that Burchfield’s (1998: 306) revision of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage accepts the use of gerund complements, while Fowler’s (1926) original work considered the same construction of forbid to be “unidiomatic”.

The present paper tests this alleged tendency by investigating the behaviour of this verb in British Academic Written English (BAWE) and other Present-day English data. BAWE is a corpus developed during the period 2004-2007 “at the Universities of Warwick, Reading and Oxford Brookes under the directorship of Hilary Nesi and Sheena Gardner (formerly of the Centre for Applied Linguistics [previously called CELTE], Warwick), Paul Thompson (Department of Applied Linguistics, Reading) and Paul Wickens (Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes), with funding from the ESRC (RES-000-23-0800)” ( bawe/), and includes essays and other writings by students at the level of higher education in the UK. While it includes an approximate total of 6 million words, the present study extracts about 4.5 million words from them, all written by native speakers of English. The rest of the corpus consists of writings by non-native speakers of English. The principal aim of the present study is to see whether the major shift from “forbid + to-infinitives” to “forbid + -ing” is observed in written British English in recent years. BAWE is an excellent corpus for this purpose as it includes various pieces of external information related to the authors, such as gender and age. Most of them were relatively young at least when the corpus was compiled. Hence, the present research is concerned with the complement shift evidenced in English of younger generation around the turn of the twenty-first century. Non-native speakers’ English is for this reason excluded from the present analysis.

*This study was in part supported by JSPS Kakenhi (Grant Number 26370562).

The research shows a notable increase of gerundial constructions in recent English, at least in comparison to some data in the twentieth century, but there is a noticeable difference between the active and passive voices. The expansion of gerunds is further advanced in the active voice than in the passive. To-infinitives are still used dominantly in the passive voice. The difference may be explained from various perspectives. One possible explanation is concerned with the matter of style: the passive is often considered to be more formal (cf. Zwicky 1981: 73) and therefore can invite the use of to-infinitives prescribed in dictionaries and grammars. Another explanation views the recent trend within the framework of the historical development of complementation in general, where infinitives are increasingly replaced by gerunds (cf. Iyeiri 2010). The difference between the active voice and the passive voice may simply be due to the difference of speed in this development. The present paper considers several possible factors like these, all related to the shift from “forbid + to-infinitives” to “forbid + -ing”, and concludes that the trend will be further accelerated in the near future.


Burchfield, Robert W. 1998. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd edition. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Dixon, Robert M. W. 1991. A New Approach to English Grammar, on Semantic Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fowler, Henry W. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Iyeiri, Yoko. 2010. Verbs of Implicit Negation and their Complements in the History of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Zwicky, Ann D. 1981. “Styles”, in Style and Variables in English, ed. Timothy Shopen & Joseph M. Williams, pp. 63-83. Cambridge, Mass: Winthrop Publishers.