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DOI 10.1007/s11525-014-9234-z

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large

Laurie Bauer

Received: 14 February 2013 / Accepted: 27 February 2014

Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Abstract The related notions of possible word, actual word and productivity are
difficult to work with because of the difficulty with the notion of actual word. When
large corpora are used as a source of data, there are some benefits for the practising
morphologist, but the notion of actual word becomes even more difficult. This is
because it rapidly becomes clear that in corpora there may be more than one form for
the same morphosemantic complex, so that rules may have multiple outputs. One of
the factors that may help determine the output of a variable rule in morphology is the
productivity of the process involved. If that is the case, the notion of productivity has
to be reevaluated.
Keywords Actual word Possible word Productivity Grammaticality Corpus

1 Introduction
Notions of possible words, actual words and productivity have become well established in recent morphological studies, and these notions are entangled with each
other.1 If you cannot tell what words are actual words, you cannot recognize new
words and therefore cannot tell whether something is or is not productive. The notion
of new word and the notion of productivity both require that there be a notion of an

1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference on Data-Rich Approaches to English

Morphology, held in Wellington, New Zealand, in July 2012. I should like to thank attendees at the conference, Liza Tarasova and Natalia Beliaeva, and referees for Morphology for feedback on earlier versions,
and Jonathan Newton for the example in (2). The research for this paper was supported by a grant from
the Royal Society of New Zealand through its Marsden Fund to the author.

L. Bauer ( )
Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand
e-mail: Laurie.bauer@vuw.ac.nz

L. Bauer

actual word. The notion of an actual word, though, is incredibly fraught. The proposal from Halle (1973) that all words which are the output of the grammar should
be marked with a value for a feature [ lexical insertion] these days seems impossibly nave. Part of the difficulty here is that Halle is working with the notion of an
ideal speaker-listener (Chomsky 1965); these days there is much more focus on an
individual speaker in a speech community. Also, these days, we have access to large
corpora of text which repeatedly show that the individual linguist has very little idea
about what might be a possible word of the language. Part of the topic of this paper
is a consideration of what happens when large corpora are used to provide data for
It would no doubt be possible to remove all the problems to which these notions
give rise by defining a synchronic state of a language or variety so narrowly that
no neologism or exposure to unfamiliar words is possible. But to do this would be
contrary to all the beliefs about the productivity of the language system that have been
in vogue since before the onset of the generative period in linguistics. If we cannot
produce or meet new words, then we have no need for rules at all because everything
can be listed. At the same time, we lose all ability to account for the fact that there is
a well-attested ability for real speakers to create words to which they have never been
In this paper I begin by returning to such well-worn notions as grammaticality and
acceptability and the way they apply in morphology; I then look at the notions of
possible words and productivity; in the core of the paper, I look at the way in which
the data available from large corpora influence the study of such phenomena, and the
benefits and problems such devices give rise to; and finally, I return to the notion of
productivity in the light of such observations.

2 Grammaticality and acceptability

Since Chomsky (1957), linguists have been familiar with the notions of grammaticality and acceptability. Grammaticality is defined by what a particular grammar
can have as its output, while acceptability is speaker-oriented and depends upon
what speakers will consider appropriate. The two need not match, as is shown by
Chomskys (1957:15) celebrated example in (1), which is presumed to be grammatical but not acceptable, while (2), a quotation from Paul McCartney (Live and Let
Die, 1973), is presumably acceptable (the structure may be heard relatively frequently
from speakers) but not grammatical (because the same preposition is both maintained
in its original position and strandedon the construction in (2) see further Radford
et al. 2012).

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.


But if this ever changing world in which we live in

Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die

While the distinction between grammaticality and acceptability is an important

one, it is clear that in general terms it is expected that acceptability will follow

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

from grammaticality (always assuming that the pragmatics associated with the lexical
items chosen to fill the relevant syntactic slots is appropriate). Sentence (1) is unacceptable because (among other things) sleeping is not something which can pragmatically be felicitously described as being done furiously. It is the pragmatics which is
odd. If a grammar of English produced sequences like (3), on the other hand, it would
be taken that the grammar did not reflect the way the language was used by speakers,
and should be corrected, because here it is the fundamental order of elements which
is wrong, not just the pragmatics.

Furiously ideas colorless sleep green.

That is, the distinction between grammaticality and acceptability is not necessarily
a comment on the vagaries of human perception, but a comment on how far linguists
are expected to make their grammars approximate the kind of output speakers/writers
actually produce. An alternative formulation is that linguists expect their grammars
to overgenerate (that is, to produce output sequences which real speakers would not
use), but will accept this as a criticism of their grammars only if certain, ill-defined,
boundaries are overstepped. For some discussion of this problem in terms of selectional restrictions, see Chomsky (1965:148163).
This notion of grammaticality was carried forward into morphological studies by,
for instance, Aronoff (1976). In another famous passage, which has set the tone for
much morphological work, Aronoff (1976:1718) says
The simplest task of a morphology, the least we demand of it, is the enumeration of the class of possible words of a language.
This, in effect, keeps the Chomskyan focus on grammaticality: the notion of enumeration is not obviously different from the Chomskyan use of generation. It also
aligns morphology (perhaps, more specifically, word-formation) with syntax in implicitly claiming that just as we cannot list the actual sentences of a language, so
we cannot list the actual words, but we can provide a statement by which we can
determine whether a given form can be expected to be admissible as a word of the
language provided that it is pragmatically adequate. I have previously (Bauer 1983:
Sect. 4.2) argued in favor of this position, in a way that I would no longer wish to
Enumerating the possible words of the language has generally been seen as a matter of stating the relevant rules of word-formation (which Aronoff terms WFRs
Word Formation Rules). The notion of a rule as it has developed within generative
grammar has typically demanded some form or structure which is affected by the rule
(the input), some process which has an effect on that input, and, by implication, the
output form created by the rule. When we consider morphology, this means that rules
(or, specifically, WFRs) create new derivatives from bases which are simpler words
or obligatorily bound bases.2 This is, in essence, not greatly different from what we
might characterize as a pre-generative structuralist position, except in that the rule
2 In the case of conversion I assume that this still applies, in that the simpler word has not undergone the

identity operation which creates the derivative. Clearly, an alternative position would be possible, in which
case the characterization of a rule given here would have to be modified slightly.

L. Bauer

notation is formulated as a rule of creation, while the structuralists would probably

have seen their formulae as being pieces of analysis. Given that it is a commonplace
of generative theory that rules are not directional, but work equally for production
and perception (Lyons 1991:43), it is not clear just how much importance should be
given to this difference.
There are, of course, now alternatives to such an explicit statement of rules, in particular connectionism eschews any explicit statement of relationship between input
and output, although it maintains the input and output. The same might be said for
Optimality Theoretic formulations, where the optimal output emerges from the set of
prioritized constraints. Nonetheless, even in such cases, there is an input (typically a
word) and an output (a word) linked by some, presumably generalized, procedure.
The precise status of the output is not necessarily clear. Is the output of any such
rule an actual word (and if so, is the rule a once-only rule: Aronoff 1976:22), or is it
a possible word (aka a potential word)? To some extent, this is the problem that was
solved by Halles [ lexical insertion] feature, although it was never clear how the
feature marking (and the status it attempted to encode) was supposed to be changed
from minus to plus.
Difficulties begin to emerge with these notions before we go any further. The status
of potential words is not consistent in the eyes of real speakers. Some potential words
are not real words (4), (6), (8) or are words which have just been made up (5),
others, if we follow Aronoff (1976), are (because of the great productivity of the
processes involved) so automatic as to be unnoticeable to the speaker in context,
and cannot be blocked by actual words. On the other hand, some words which have
currency in the community may not have been noticed by individual speakers, and
so may not function as actual words (4), (7). At the very least, the status of the
individual speaker and the community need some clarification if a coherent view of
this aspect of linguistic structure is to be properly understood.

She. . . pulled on another pair of disposable gloves. Gemma wondered if there

was a proper name for a glovophiliac. (Lord, Gabrielle 2002. Baby did a bad
bad thing. Sydney: Hodder, p. 272.)


Theyre moist and cinnamony and . . . is that a word?

Is what a word?
Hannah laughed. If its not, it ought to be. (Fluke, Joanne 2003. Meringue
pie murder. New York: Kensington.)


He knew he wasnt going to get a penny out of Bairn, so he sent his chief
crucifixionist to make an example.
Loudermilk wiped the legs of his glasses I dont think thats a word. (Estelman, Loren D. 2007. American detective. New York: Doherty, p. 125.)


Id need an enforcement arm. For my benignity, I mean. If thats a word.

It should be, Tamara said. (Lescroart, John 2012. The hunter. New York:
Dutton, p. 139.)


She had always been one of the popular kidsnot the leader, not the trendsetter just . . . a belonger, she thought, knowing that wasnt a real word. It should
have been. (Hoag, Tami 2013. The 9th girl. New York: Dutton, p. 151.)

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

3 Possible words and productivity

If the output of a WFR is a potential word, we see why productivity is important for
rule-based systems. There are plenty of actual words of any natural language which
are not potential words. Mice, an actual plural of mouse, is a potential phonological
word of English, but not a potential plural of mouse, in the sense that there is no WFR
in current English which could produce mice with this meaning. Length, an actual
nominalization from long is not a potential nominalization (we will need to come
back to this claim). Thus actual words are not a subset of possible words (perhaps
more strictly, are not a subset of the words which could be formed by current WFRs
for the expression of the relevant morphological categories). Terminology in this area
has varied (Bauer 1983:48), but is generally now carried on in terms of certain forms
being lexicalized, while some rules are productive. Productive rulesthe only ones
that a generative linguist of Aronoffs persuasion is presumably concerned withare
those rules which can produce possible words. The implications of such a view are not
always welcome: some linguists such as Jackendoff (1975) maintain non-productive
rules in their descriptions, naming them redundancy rules; there may or may not be a
firm distinction made between redundancy rules and productive morphological rules.
But if the existence of a (non-redundancy) rule shows that there is productivity
(sensu availability), it says nothing about productivity (sensu profitability) (Corbin
1987; translation of the terms from Carstairs-McCarthy 1992:37). Availability says
merely that the rule can be used; profitability says something about how likely it is
that the rule will be used. There is quite a lot of debate in the literature as to how
much profitability is a matter of linguistics and how much it is a matter of pragmatic
need for the word-formation process in question (for different reasons why it might
not be linguistic, see Harris 1951:255 and Koefoed 1992:16 and discussion in Bauer
2001:28). Only if it is linguistic can it be built into a rule notation like the generative
There is much in the descriptions of morphological processes to suggest that some
degree of profitability is caused by linguistic factors. Domains are often specified in
linguistic terms. For example, the English de-adjectival -en]V (as in blacken) is often
said to attach to bases ending in an obstruent; the de-verbal -al]N (as in arrival) requires bases ending with a stressed syllable; -able]A (as in extendable) applies freely
to transitive verbs; and so on. In other approaches to productivity, it is claimed that
productive affixes are more parsable than non-productive ones, with the base being
more frequent than the derivative, the semantics of the whole being transparent, and
the phonology indicating clearly the presence of a boundary between base and affix
(Hay 2003). While frequency is not strictly a linguistic notion, relating to use rather
than to structure, the other factors here are linguistic.
But even where there are linguistic constraints on the application of WFRs, it
seems undeniable that there is still a certain haphazardness to their application. There
are, for instance, many final-stressed verbs in English for which there is no corresponding -al]N nominalization current in the relevant speech communities. Verbs
such as conduct, contrive (contrast arrive), demand, imply, impose (contrast propose), maintain (contrast retain according to the OED3 ), prefer (contrast refer), rely
3 OED. The Oxford English dictionary on-line. www.oed.com.

L. Bauer

(contrast deny) are among those for which the OED lists no current -al]N nominalization. That being the case, either there must be some other constraint on the suffix
-al]N , or else the set of verbs which take the suffix is fundamentally unpredictable,
despite the formal restrictions which can be stated to modify the application of the
rules. That is, the formal constraints do not delimit a set of acceptable words, but a
much larger set, some of which may be unacceptable or ungrammatical. Similar comments can be made in regard to -able adjectivalizations. Here, though, the process is
rather more profitable in current English, and the unattested or new forms with -able
seem rather less outlandish. Forms with transitive verb bases not listed in the OED
include disgustable (listed as obsolete), Googleable, grillable (boilable and roastable
are listed), inculcatable, parkable, pedestrianizable, roquetable, spyable. Even if it
isin principlepredictable that something should be possible, it is not predictable
from general principles which items will have become actual words. At this level at
least, the profitability of WFRs is variable. This affects acceptability for many speakers, for whom an acceptable word may be defined as being somewhere in the set of
item-familiar words and those created by extremely productive processes.
The parallel from syntax would suggest that this is irrelevant: most sentences do
not occur and the job of a generative grammar is to say whether a string is a sentence or not, rather than whether a sentence occurs or not. In morphology it is less
clear to what extent this is true, unless by fiat. First, there is a lay prejudice in favor of
words existing rather than being created on-line (but see also Di Sciullo and Williams
1987:14: Most of the words are listed.). We might dismiss this as lay ignorance.
But there is a fair amount of evidence that derivational productivity is rather difficult
for speakers (at least in some language types and some formation-types), and may
be avoided (see e.g. Bauer 1996). Secondly, sentences are maximally productive because they are indefinitely extendable.4 In purely practical terms, words cannot be
indefinitely extended: their function is to name entities, actions and states, etc. and an
infinite name (or even a name which took several minutes to say) would not function
appropriately in the language system. Even in languages which allow apparently free
recursion in compounds (like German, for instance), it appears that compounds over
four elements long are very rare (Fleischer and Barz 2007:98). It is not that compounds cannot be longerthey can; it is that in general terms they are not. One of the
things we learn from Fabb (1988) is that far fewer sequences of affixes in English are
found than appear theoretically possible. If we look at the number of concatenated
affixes attested in any given word, it is typically (at least in an Indo-European language like English) relatively small (Ljung 1970 gives figures of three prefixes and
four suffixes for English, which seems slightly short in the light of words such as
sensationalization (OED), but which makes the point; it may also be more realistic
where the base is not lexicalized). While there are places where affixes are added to
phrasal or sentential bases, and there is no reason to presume that such bases can4 Referees for Morphology rightly query the use of the term infinite in this context, yet Chomsky
(1975:78) talks of an infinite set of grammatical utterances, Fromkin et al. (1999:9) of an infinite set of
new sentences and Carnie (2007:16) says Language is a productive (probably infinite) system, including in his reasoning that sentences can always be extended by the addition of an extra sub-part. Perhaps
words cannot always be so extended. I find Matthews (1979:24) helpful: A generativist says that the
speakers mind controls an infinite set of sentences. But this is not a statement of observed fact. It is part
of a theory.

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

not contain syntactic recursion (Cat-in-the-hattish seems perfectly possible5 ), this is

not clearly morphological recursion. Repetition of the same morph in a single word
can be found in morphological systems, as illustrated below from Labrador Eskimo
(Miller 1993:47) in (9), from Japanese (Miyagawa 1999:257) in (10) and from English in (11). It is, however, always the exceptional pattern in morphology, never the
rule, and is usually tightly constrained.6

see-PASS - CAUS - PASS-believe-PASS-3sS
S/he was believed to have been made to be seen


Taroo-ga Hanoko-ni Ziroo-o Mitiko-ni aw-ase-sase-ru

Taro-NOM Hanoko-DAT Jiro-ACC Michiko-DAT meet-CAUS - CAUS - PRES
Taro will cause (make/let) Hanoko to cause Jiro to meet Michiko


Meta-meta-rules, pre-preseason (both COCA)

To some extent the same is true of syntactic rules: no living person has the time to
utter or write a sentence of more than very limited length. It must be acknowledged,
though, that the extent of recursion is greater in syntax, the length of sentences is
(almost by definition) greater than the length of words, and the extent to which one
extra constituent may be freely added to sentences is greater than the extent to which
that can be done to words. So the productivity of morphological rules is far more constrained than that of syntactic rules. It is further constrained by the fact that affixes
are (on the whole) grammatical elements, and stringing grammatical elements is not
necessarily any easier in morphology than it is in syntax. Despite the possibility of
sentences such as What did you bring the book that I didnt want to be read to out
of down for? (at least as a joke showing the necessity for preposition stranding), sequences of prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions and the like are severely limited, and
sequences of affixes arein most language typesalso severely limited, presumably
for similar reasons, namely that it makes little sense to specify a number of functions
unless the things to which those functions apply are also specified.
The question is whether words with longer affixal strings are unacceptable or ungrammatical (or neither of those two options). I suspect that such a question is not
easily answerableif at all: it is not clear what would count as evidence. But the fact
that the question is worth asking suggests that morphological productivity is not just
the same as syntactic productivity.
So we must conclude that the division between grammaticality and acceptability,
which was very important in the development of the notion of linguistic rules, is not
as easily made in morphology as it is in syntax, and that while availability might be
accounted for in terms of such rules, profitability remains unaccounted for.
If it is hard to distinguish between grammaticality and acceptability in wordformation, and we cannot necessarily trust notions of acceptability, then we might
need some alternative way to get at the same underlying notion. Accordingly, at this
point, I turn to consider the contribution of large corpora to morphological research.
5 And can be attested at http://qahatesyou.com/wordpress/category/philosophy/ (accessed 9 Jan 2013).
6 Indeed, even the Japanese example below may not stand up to close scrutiny, since Miyagawa notes a

slightly different function for the two causative markers, despite their shared form and shared meaning.

L. Bauer

4 Large corpora
There are places where large corpora can be extremely useful for the morphologist,
and places where large corpora raise practical problems for the morphologist. In this
section, I shall consider each of these cases in turn, before returning to the implications of what corpora have to tell us for productivity and possible words.
4.1 Benefits of large corpora
Payne and Huddleston (2002:449) make the claim that although it is perfectly acceptable to have various London schools and colleges (presumably derived from an
underlying or implicit various London schools and London colleges), it is not possible
to have *ice-lollies and creams corresponding to ice-lollies and ice-creams (the asterisk is theirs). This, they claim, is because we are dealing with two different types of
construction here: ice-cream is a compound, and does not allow coordination within
it, while London college is a phrasal construction, and does allow coordination within
it. I have elsewhere (Bauer 1998) queried the logic of such an approach to the distinction between phrases and compounds, and shall not repeat that here. What I want
to say here is that the intuitions which tell them that ice-lollies and creams cannot be
part of English are clearly faulty, because when we look at large enough corpora (in
this case, when we look at what we can find via Google) we find examples like those
repeated below.

Living on the broken dreams of ice lollies and creams

http://www.melodramatic.com/node/70347?page=1 (accessed 12 Jan 2011)
Far too many ice-lollies and creams had been consumed but we were all happy
little campers
http://yacf.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=33253.120 (accessed 16 Jan 2011)
These nine months were filled with dripping ice lollies and creams, spilt soft
drinks and lost maltesers
http://keeptrackkyle.blogspot.com/2006/07/tidying-up.html (accessed 16 Jan
to play with their buckets and spades, to paddle in the water, and to suck lots
of ice lollies and creams
GovernessXLibraryABSissCDictionaryS.htm (accessed 16 Jan 2011)
Wooden Toy Ice Creams And Lollies With Crate
html (accessed 16 Jan 2011)
Ice Creams and Lollies
http://blog.annabelkarmel.com/recipes/ice-creams-and-lollies.html (accessed
16 Jan 2011)

It is true that some of the examples in (12) (and the same is true in other examples
cited later) are headlines, and the grammar of headlines may not be exactly the same

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

as the grammar of other structures; nevertheless, there are sufficient examples here to
show that the type that is predicted not to occur does actually occur in a large enough
If it is the case that, presented with sufficient data, we can find examples of precisely the type that are predicted not to occur, then the theoretical position supported
by the predictions loses credibility. In this case, the firm distinction between compounds and phrases has to be less secure than is claimed.
To take another example, Jensen (1990:119) cites a claim from Zwicky (1969) that
genitive forms of ablaut plurals that end in /s/ are impossible: *geeses, *mices. Such
forms are certainly rare (there are no hits in COCA, for instance), but that does not
mean that they are impossible. The examples in (13) are also found via Google.

Newborn Mices Hearts Can Heal Themselves

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/science/01obmice.html?_r=0 (Accessed
19 Oct 2012)
Without B-Raf and C-Raf proteins mices fur turns white
http://www.news-medical.net/news/20121006/Without-B-Raf-and-C-Rafproteins-mices-fur-turns-white.aspx (accessed 19 Oct 2012)
Male Birth Control Possible? JQ1 Compound Decreases Mices Sperm Count,
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/16/male-birth-control-jq1-spermcount_n_1784361.html (accessed 19 Oct 2012)
Researchers Plant Short-Term Memories into Mices Brains.
http://www.medicaldaily.com/articles/12018/20120910/researchers-plantshort-term-memories-mices-brains.htm#s5d6fwt4hEfE1uW4.99 (accessed 19
Oct 2012)
Forget me not: scientists trigger mices memories with light
http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/science-scope/forget-me-not-scientiststrigger-mices-memories-with-light/12518 (accessed 19 Oct 2012)
What can I use for my mices bedding?
http://www.guineapigcages.com/forum/others/43989-mice-beddingalternative-what-can-i-use-my-mices-bedding.html (Accessed 19 Oct 2012)
http://www.feeldesain.com/earthflight-flying-with-geeses-eyes-on-newyork-city.html (Accessed 19 Oct 2012)
I saw that my geeses wings are tinged brown at the edges and turned in
(accessed 19 Oct 2012)

As a third and final example, consider the affixation of the prefix un- to certain
implicitly negative adjectives. The original claim lies at least as far back as Jespersen
(1917), but is connected in particular with the work of Zimmer (1964). In the forty
years since that work appeared, any number of linguists have repeated the example,
apparently convinced that it represents a real constraint on un- prefixation (despite

L. Bauer

what Zimmer himself says). However, Bauer et al. (2013) cite the examples in (14)
from large corpora. Clearly the intuitions of many linguists have been unreliable, and
there is no such absolute restriction on un- prefixation.

unafraid, unangry, unanxious, un-bald, unbare, unbitter, unbogus, uncoy, uncrazy, uncruel, undead, unevil, unfake, unfraught, unhostile, unhumid, unjealous, unlame, unlazy, unmad, unpoor, unsick, unsordid, unsurly, untimid, unugly, unvulgar, unweary

One tactic available to linguists who make claims about the impossibility of all
these forms is to assert that the examples in (12), (13) and (14) are ungrammatical
and errors. I have personally been given such a response by a referee for an article
submitted for publication to a well-known journal. The trouble with such claims in
the face of evidence like that cited here is that it hard to see how it can be justified
except circularly. It may be that there are different dialects of English, some of which
allow and others of which do not allow the constructions illustrated, but a simpler
explanation is just that we do not need to discuss things which several geese own all
that often, and that such usages are correspondingly rare. As a result, we can find
such examples only when we look at very large corpora, and that the relatively low
number of hits even in such corpora does not indicate ungrammaticality, but simply
4.2 Difficulties presented by large corpora
Not only do we find really useful examples like those cited above to help us formulate
true generalizations about the way in which morphological structure is used, we also
find unhelpful examples. To begin with an isolated example, consider the text in (15).

Could that polish have been tainted with cyanide? Could Susan have been the
tainterer? Was there such a word as tainterer? Maybe she was a tainteress?
(Sarah Strohmeyer, 2004. Bubbles: a broad. New York: Dutton, p. 73.)

The book (as is clear from its title) is intended to be humorous, and this passage
could be intended to be non-serious; on the face of it, however, we have an unfamiliar
derivative, tainterer, formed with double affixation of -er, and then another derivative,
tainteress, formed without any resyllabification of the final <r>that is we do not
find taintress (contrast actress). There is an argument to be made that either of these
leads to an ungrammatical form.7
So how are examples like those in (15) to be interpreted? Do we take them as being
indicators of a new pattern in English? Do we take them to be the continuation of an
old pattern (tainterer can be found in Google with reference to nineteenth-century
professions, presumably denoting a dyer)? Do we take them to be ungrammatical
7 There is some variability as to the resyllabification of the final <r> in English: manageress shows no

resyllabification, and this is not simply a matter of whether we are dealing with -er or -or, since we find
doctoress, mayoress and waitress. The -erer sequence can be found in forms like adulterer (where only
one of the -er sequences is an independent morph) or in fruiterer, which is unusual in its structure, and not
obviously productive.

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

and unacceptableerrors, perhaps? If they are isolated (as this example is), do we
just ignore them?
A more complex, and more worrying example, is provided by adjectives with into be found in COCA (Davies 2008) and the BNC (British National Corpus 2007).
Among the thousands of tokens of words beginning with the letters <in>, <im>, <il>,
<ir> in COCA and the BNC, there are several hundred types which represent negative
adjectives, and appear to have the affix to be seen in inconclusive, indirect, inordinate,
etc. Among these instances of the negative prefix, we find a handful of forms which
appear to indicate the productivity of the prefix, in that these words do not appear to
be in general usage in the community and are not, for instance, in the OED. Examples
are given in (16).

immedical, inactual, inadult, inattentional, incompoundable, inconservative,

indescriptible, indominable, inexorcizable, inexplicatable, inextractable, injuvenile, intesticular

This is interesting in its own right, since we might expect to find that un- is the productive negative prefix in English, and that in- is not productive or at best marginally
so (as suggested by Marchand 1969:170; Bauer 1983:219; though contrast Baayen
and Lieber 1991). Perhaps rather more interesting, however, are those forms where
the in- prefix is found where some other prefix is established in the community. Some
examples are given in (17).

inadapted, inapparent (O), inappeasable (O), inarguable (O), inartful (O),

inartistic (O), inassimilable (O), incivil (O), indemonstrable (O), inequal (O),
infathomable, infavorable, ingenerous, inimaginable, inintelligent, ininteresting, instable (O), intenable

Those words marked with (O) in (17) are listed in the OED, even though other
forms seem to be more usual today. There are, for instance, 20k hits for inappeasable
on Google, but over 150k for unappeasable. Not all the cases are that clear-cut, but
the examples in (17) appear to provide evidence that in- is productive enough to
take over items which are well-established with some other, apparently synonymous,
This is interesting on two fronts. First, it suggests that in- is more productive than
even words like those in (16) would indicate: it is not only found in new words, it has
the power to oust old (presumably item-familiar) words. In general terms, this is the
behavior associated with productive processes: plural -s and past tense -ed spread to
new bases much more easily than ablaut or the pattern seen in catch-caught.
The second point is that data such as that illustrated in (17) appears to contradict everything we are told about blocking. Blocking (Aronoff 1976; Rainer 1988) is
supposed to prevent the coining (or possibly only the establishment) of new words
which have the same meaning as actual listed words (or possibly only actual listed
words which use the same bases). Negative prefixes in English provide considerable
evidence that this is not the case (see Bauer et al. 2013 for more discussion). Even in
the OED we find sets such as those in (18).

L. Bauer






Even though blocking is not the main focus of this paper, it is noteworthy that
large corpora will often give apparent evidence of the failure of blocking, and again
it can be hard to interpret such evidence as is provided. In the case of the negative
prefixes, my own opinion is that the evidence is overwhelmingly against there being
any general principle of blocking, though I do not know why negative adjectives
should be so open to multiple, synonymous affixation patterns (if, indeed, this is not
merely a misleading impression).
Among the negated adjectives which might have been listed in (17), I should like
to draw particular attention to a small set illustrated in (19).

inbearable, inbelievable, inmodest, inpracticable, inpenetrable, inprescribable

There are not very many instances like those in (19), and most of them are hapaxes
in the corpora, but even in (19) we seem to have a recurring pattern. We have evidence
here of a number of instances of the prefix in- occurring in the default allomorph inrather than the expected allomorph im- before a bilabial. The obvious, immediate
conclusion is that the rules of allomorphy in English are not quite as automatic as
linguists tend to consider them to be, and that users are writing an unassimilated
form or perhaps a morphophonemic representation. Unfortunately, there are other
possibilities, which mean that we have to be careful in rushing to that conclusion.
On the standard QWERTY keyboard, <m> and <n> are adjacent keys: it is therefore
possible that all of these (a very small number in the thousands of tokens of words
with initial <in> or <im>) are simply typographical errors. It is also the case that <i>
and <u> are adjacent keys, and so any of these might be a typographical error for a
form with initial un-, and if that is the case, there is no *um- allomorph, and the <n>
would be expected. Given examples of the type shown in (17), alternation between
in- and un- prefixed negatives cannot be unexpected, and thus even unmodest must be
considered a possible form. So how are we supposed to interpret evidence like that in
(19), and what would it take to convince us that we need to move to a new analysis?
It seems to me that we can go some way toward answering this question. At the
very least we would want to find a number of independent occurrences of the same
form in places where the text is clearly serious rather than ludic. I think the examples
cited in (19) would be more convincing if it were not the case that there were two
alternative routes to them by simple error. Even though we find similar spellings
before labials in other parts of speech, the number of cases we have attested is not yet
enough to indicate conclusively that the end of in- allomorphy is a linguistic change
in progress; it is, however, enough to make us aware of the possibility that something
is happening in this area of language.

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

However, the real point here is that a large corpus can provide us with data that
we cannot interpret. If it is dangerous to assume that the examples are an accurate
reflection of competence, it is equally dangerous to assume that they are not. More
widely, such examples seem to require us to review the notion of a possible word for a
new generation of researchers who standardly have this kind of data-source available
to them.
4.3 Grammar and corpora
All this raises questions about notions of grammaticality (and hence notions of what
is in the grammar) and what we find in a corpus. Matthews (1979) discusses such
matters by using an analogy with a map. A valid motorists map of Paris might show
an undifferentiated shaded area, surrounded by the boulevard priphrique; another
map might show streets including Place Pigalle and Place du Tertre; yet another might
show the difference in height above sea level between those two streets by means of
contour lines; but maps do not usually differentiate between three-storey buildings
and ten-storey buildings lining the streets. At some level, the detail is deliberately left
off the map without invalidating the map. Do we do the same with our grammars? Do
corpora inevitably bring us face-to-face with the question of building heights, when
all we want to know is how to drive to Montmartre?
If that is the case, it seems to me, then uses of corpora like those in Sect. 4.1 are
fully justified because they are meeting specific claims with data that is on the same
degree of abstraction as the question that was introduced by the original claimants.
Uses like those in Sect. 4.2, on the other hand, may be irrelevant because they may
introduce a whole new level of evidence and a different notion of relevance. But that
seems unhelpful for linguistics. Part of the value of a paper such as Hundt (2013)
is that by searching corpora it discovers that a grammatical construction BE + Past
Participle as perfect is not an error, but a systematically used way of marking the
perfect in much of the English-speaking world. (See also Britain 2000 for another
surprising feature that is more general than might have been thought.) That is an
example like that in (20) from the BNC is in use (acceptable? grammatical?) from a
range of English speakers.

both Martin and Ian are been having a similar trauma

So part of the role of corpora is to expand our notion of what might be acceptable
or grammatical and challenge our preconceptions about errors. That means that we
cannot rule out the uses of corpora in Sect. 4.2 after all, even if we are unsure about
the weight to give examples that we find. An alternative might be to say that there
is some kind of threshold which corpus studies must cross before their findings are
accepted as mainstream usage. The uses discussed by Hundt (2013) are above that
threshold, while the negative prefixes in Sect. 4.2 are below it. That makes intuitive
sense, but we have no way of operationalizing that threshold. How do we quantify
the number of hits required in a corpus of size n for the construction to be taken
as part of what linguists should be accounting for? There does not seem to be any
non-controversial way of progressing.

L. Bauer

5 Back to possible words and productivity

5.1 Variable outputs
We now need to return to the notion of possible word, both in the light of the discussion above and in the light of some modern discussions of the ways in which WFRs
need to be formulated.
Krott (2001; Krott et al. 2002, 2007) argues in some detail that linking elements
in Dutch and German compounds are best predicted not by rules which give a single possible output for any input, but by a model in which the linking elements are
determined in some analogical way, which can only be modeled with some statistical process to determine the outcome. Such a solution is not at this stage universally
adopted (Dressler et al. 2001; Neef 2009) but raises the notion of the output form of a
word being a probability rather than a well-defined unique form. Similar conclusions
are drawn within the kind of prosodic morphology discussed by Lappe (2007). Various factors may play a role in constraining the output of morphological processes,
and they do not always agree on what the output will be. In some instances, the output
will, indeed, be variable. Lappe cites, for example, variable infixation in Tagalog loan
words (Orgun and Sprouse 1999, who provide the examples in (21)).



to graduate
to iron
to break

Thornton (2012) shows for Italian that even in inflectional morphology, cell-mates
(alternative forms representing the same grammatical word) may persist for centuries.
In English, too, we find occasional alternative outputs to morphological problems,
such as the co-existence of un-fucking-believable and unbe-fucking-lievable,8 orient
and orientate as the verb corresponding to orientation, or deduce and deduct as the
verb corresponding to deduction, and it may be fair to add at least some of the forms
in (18).9 We can also add the verbs of English that have alternative past tense and
past participle forms (sometimes in different varieties, but not always), forms that
show variable fricative-voicing before plural marking (path may have a plural /pa:Ts/
or /pa:Dz/), and the many other places where there is variability in morphological
realization of the same slot in some lexical paradigm. In a world where such forms are
not uniquely specified, the notion of possible word becomes rather more awkward
to deal with, and corpus-use brings us face to face, in a way that has not previously
been the case, with the notion that such outputs are variable.
8 Unfuckingremarkable is apparently (Google) less remarkable than unrefuckingmarkable, despite claims

in the literature that the placement of expletives in such words is largely prosodically determined.
9 The distinction between e.g. deduct and deduce as corresponding to deduction (in the Sherlock Holmes

sense of deduction, not the arithmetical one) is usually discussed as formation versus back-formation. This
assumes a model where speakers always go from the morphologically simpler to the morphologically more
complex when coining words. Speakers make a large number of what would normatively be called errors
in the stress patterns on verbs because they try to retain the stress pattern from a morphologically more
complex derivative in the morphologically simpler verb. That is we hear forms like propagte rather than
the expected prpagate, presumably influenced by propagtion. At the very least this calls into question
the way in which real speakers operate.

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

There have, of course, been many ways of presenting variable material in grammars, and there seems little point in running through them or trying to evaluate
them against each other (see, for example, Labov 1972: Chap. 8; Skousen 1989;
Bender 2006; Albright 2009); there are also a number of publications which have
pointed to variable degrees of productivity in different (social or linguistic) environments (see, for example, Plag et al. 1999; Baayen 2009). The point here is not really
how to model variable behavior, but how to conceptualize the underlying categories
when we have variable outputs.
At the very least we need a way of stating the variable outputs of rules. Now we
face the problems that have always faced the notion of variable rule in sociolinguistics. If this is done simply by allowing two or more rules to specify different outcomes
from the same input, we are leaving a lot to the interpretation of the rules. If it is done
with some kind of formula we cannot necessarily predict the outcome on any given
occasion (in fact, given how little we know about the various factors influencing the
outcome, it might be safer to say that this is likely always to be true). Selecting forms
from among stored exemplars does not require a rule of the same kind at all, but
doesnt explain the same phenomena. Using stored exemplars to predict new forms,
possibly as opposed to actual words, begins with a denial that there is a single input
form. Rather multiple factors may be important (including the frequency of the bases
involved, degrees of phonological similarity with other bases, semantic content, pragmatic value). Among these other factors may be degree of productivity of the affixes
concerned. That is, part of the reason that we do not (or, probably more accurately,
rarely) find bluth as the nominalization from blue, is that -th is not productive (available) in English. Part of the reason we are unlikely to find a new word in -ment is that
it is of low productivity, even though it is not necessarily of low frequency (intendment in the BNC is listed as obsolete in the OED, and provides a rare instance of an
apparently innovative form using this suffix). If that is the case, productivity takes on
a whole new importance as being part of what indicates the degree of possibility of a
The implication here is that the moment we move away from the standard notion
of rule with a defined input and output, and instead consider something that has an
aleatoric component in the creation of the output, the notion of a possible word is
changed. How important that change is may remain unclear. But it is certainly the
case that we cannot predict a unique output for all inputs, and this must influence our
notion of blocking, since a rule may permit multiple possible outputs. This suggests
that any view of blocking as pre-emption of a paradigm slot by a particular form must
be made more nuanced if it is to continue to have any credibility.
Such a change also has an impact on our view of productivity. Productivity no
longer provides a single appropriate output for any given morphological problem, but
a range of more or less likely outputs. To the extent that these outputs likelihood can
be influenced by local context (the words in the preceding environment, for instance,
as seems to be the case with tainteress in (15)) productivity is probably undecidable.
Tainterer may be an entirely appropriate output from the agent noun corresponding
to the verb taint, it just so happens that it is one that comes relatively low on some
hierarchy of probabilities for potential words. If this is the case, then arguing from
the non-existence of particular morphological patterns becomes theoretically suspect
in its own right.

L. Bauer

5.2 Two examples

It might be easier to think about the problem and how to resolve it if we consider
some actual examples. Here I shall consider two, the example of nominal -th and the
example of negative prefixation which has already been introduced.
5.2.1 Nominal -th
It is one of the most accepted findings of studies of English word-formation that
suffixation of -th (as we find in words like warmth, truth, depth, and so on, is no
longer productive, neither profitable not available; e.g. Plag 2003:44). On the other
hand, various sources point to the fact that coolth occurs from time to time, apparently
in defiance of the lack of productivity of the affix.
For people brought up in the generative tradition, the answer is simple. Coolth
is an established word, first noted in English in the sixteenth century (OED) and
available to speakers ever since, and present in the linguistic community though rarely
used. Even if occurrences in corpora are extremely rare, the argument would run, the
average speaker hears so much more than is present in any corpus, that most speakers
will have experience of the form and be aware of it. That is how it has survived.
Others argue that even -th, the posterboy of unproductive morphology, remains
marginally productive, and the occasional occurrences of coolth, like that from Elizabeth Peters in (22), cited from the OED, are instances of the productivity of the

Hear it we did, in the coolth of the evening, as twilight spread her violet veils
across the garden. [1991]

These two views are associated with rather different theoretical standpoints (or
potential theoretical standpoints). In the first view, we can talk of the production of
coolth as being made possible by a once-only rule for the speech community, and
coolth having become a property of that community, to be exploited by later users.
It is compatible with a process of affixation having become unavailable. The second
view is rather different (although what the real implications are may remain unclear).
Each speaker has an individual lexicon, which overlaps in large part with the lexica
of other speakers in the community. When the speaker coins a word (or the listener
hears a new word) it becomes part of the individuals lexicon, and may be put there
on the basis of a once-only rule which applies only to the output of the individual
speaker. Thus, many speakers may individually coin the same word, which may or
may not then become shared with the speech community as a whole.
These two views have very different implications for blocking (Aronoff 1976,
though see my earlier comments on this notion and Bauer et al. 2013). In the first
view, blocking may only affect the registration of a word as part of the established
vocabulary of a community; in the second view, blocking succeeds or fails at the
level of the individual, which may have implications for the community as a whole,
depending on how much the community ignores individuals creations which are not
Do we have any evidence on these two views? In this particular case, it seems to
me, the evidence is in favor of the first view. This is because only coolth seems to

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

turn up as a new or innovative use of -th. Bluth is in the Urban Dictionary (http://
www.urbandictionary.com/) but as a verb and a contraction of BlueTooth. Greenth
occurs a number of times in Google, but is also found in the OED from the eighteenth century. Gloomth, used today mainly as a trade name, is also an eighteenth
century creation. Bluth and Brownth and Lowth are found as proper names. Highth is
a Middle English word that is largely replaced by height, but has a few remnants in
dictionaries. Smellth and spoilth get a number of hits on Google, of which many are
intended as representations of third person singular verbs, and few are unambiguous
nominalizations. Cheapth, usually a proper noun or the result of a typographical error
on Google, gets a few uninterpretable hits where it appears to be an adjective, not a
noun. Given what I have said earlier, I cannot rule out the possibility that there is a
larger pattern here of genuine neologisms using -th, but I see no evidence for it. The
repetition of a few words which are continually recoined does not seem to count as
sufficient evidence for marginal productivity.
5.2.2 Negative prefixation
I shall ignore here the problem posed by the orthography <in> before a bilabial, which
was covered earlier. The larger questions are the apparent productivity of in-, and the
general pattern of apparently synonymous prefixes.
The main difficulty with the productivity of in- at the expense of un- is that it
could easily be a typographical error, <i> for <u> which are adjacent keys. At some
point, though, this excuse fails to hold. What we do not know is what that threshold
should be for accepting that there is a visible trend here. Renouf (2013) gives ample
evidence that well-established words may have an occurrence of 0.5 in a million
words of text. Here we would not necessarily expect the individual items to have
comparable frequency in texts if they are new (Renouf 2013), but we might want to
postulate a level of something like one occurrence of the pattern in a million words
of running text as a measure of productivity (though this will be reconsidered below).
In Sect. 4.2 I cited thirty examples of the pattern, but may not have found all of the
relevant examples. Thirty examples in a corpus which was, at the time the sample was
taken, 400m words of running text is well under one attestation per million words.
I do not believe that this rules out this pattern as a productive one, but I would suggest
that if these figures are at all accurate (and they can be verified by other researchers)
they are not yet sufficient to indicate a trend in English word-formation. They can
be no more than suggestive of trends to watch for.
The same cannot be claimed of the patterns with contrasting negative prefixes.
That so many of these are established in the lexicographical tradition as well as in the
corpus-based evidence seems to imply some stability to a pattern of synonymy. Of
course, in individual cases there may be other factors at play. It may be that untypical
is gradually replacing atypical as the default negative of typical (better evidence is required), and there has been a long normative attempt to distinguish between immoral
and amoral on semantic grounds, that is they are claimed not to be synonymous at all
(that is often difficult to confirm from the citations in the corpus). Nonetheless synonymy appears to be the rule, though we still lack good evidence on factors such as
register, age, ethnicity, etc. COCA examples of competing prefixes are given in (23).

L. Bauer


works of the sort are generally viewed as inartistic, one-dimensional, tendentious, and, at the extreme, propagandistic.
Well, thats an unartistic idea about dancing. Its a plebeian, low-class idea.
My friends and I were the most unpolitical people in the world
Nobody is apolitical, but Rick is about as apolitical as a guy you can find
a perpetual damnation by some unappeasable figure of authority
inappeasable Society would have himand had got him.
This is an ahistorical position that serves as a justification of a status quo
But a broader historical truthfulness mitigates such unhistorical contrivances.
Networks may be dishistorical, but they have a schematic shape
Were very unsimilar in the family ties. She hates children, I want 10.
girls and boys are deeply dissimilar creatures from day one.

Synonymy may or may not be a more general tendency across English, but at
least in this area it is more pervasive than one might expect, and there seems to be
sufficient evidence of coining in the face of synonymy that we cannot simply dismiss
it as some kind of peripheral phenomenon. This implies that contrasting affixes have
some degree of productivity in parallel contexts, which is to say that morphological
processes compete for the same space and that there may be more than one answer
for a particular slot.
Using Baayens measure of productivity, Baayen and Lieber (1991) report that
there is little difference between the productivity of un- and in-, giving values
of 0.0005 and 0.0004 respectively, compared with a figure of 0.0001 for simplex
adjectivesthis compares with 0.005 for -ish, for instance). Intuitively, this is an
unexpected result, which they have some difficulty in explaining.
A small experiment indicates the problem. Relevant adjectives in in- and un- which
occur just once in the BNC (100,000 words of running text) were extracted, and
those in which the last level of word-formation did not involve the negative prefix
were deleted. The remaining words were checked in the COD (Pearsall 2002), and
those listed in the dictionary were excluded. The remaining words act as a proxy for
relevant neologisms in the BNC. (In fact, some of the items not in the COD were
item-familiar; but there will have been some words which were genuine neologisms
with more than one occurrence in the corpus.) The list of words in in- has 35 members (with an extra eight if all the other allomorphs or in- are included), while the list
of words in un- contains 1019 members. This represents a huge difference in usage
in potentially neologistic environments. The experimental method is, of course, not
without its problems (Would a larger corpus have found a more equal distribution
though the BNC is larger than the corpus used by Baayen and Lieber? Is it true that
neologisms are likely to appear once only? How far can any corpus represent what
the native speaker is exposed to? Was the COD the best dictionary to choose for
this purpose?), but it suggests genuine differences in profitability, with in- not even
showing up as productive according to the one per million test I proposed above (see
also note 10 below). But if in- is to be counted as productive at all, it is much less
so than un- (on the figures here). My suggestion is that the reason it is less used in
neologisms is that there is a more frequent pattern of new or rare forms with un-,
which is thus more conceptually available to speakers. That is, the profitability of un-

Grammaticality, acceptability, possible words and large corpora

is one of the factors in explaining that un- is more profitable than in-. Phrased less
circularly, the speakers experience of the profitability of affix in the immediate past
is one of the factors that a speaker uses in determining the outcome of competition
between morphological processes. That being the case, profitability is an input criterion in judging matters of productiveness, not just an output. The precise nature of the
mechanism whereby this worksassuming that it does holdought to be available
to experimental observation.
Beyond that, however, the examples discussed above seem to indicate that even
marginal cases of profitability can be important in providing viable alternative possible words. However the example of -th is interpreted, some of the prefixes which
show up in negatives seem to be of very low profitability (the one per million level
suggested above as a working indicator of productivity now seems far too high to
be reasonable) and yet are available when the conditions demand them. I have come
very little closer to determining what those conditions might be, but have, I think,
indicated how difficult it is to determine what might be and what is not a potential
5.2.3 Outcomes
We can summarize some of this and say that forms which could be typographical errors need a higher level of support than others; that with any new pattern, we need to
set a moderate threshold below which we will not consider a pattern (here the figure
of one occurrence of the pattern per million word of running text has been proposed,
but other figures could beand have beensuggested10 ); that ideally any discussion
of the reality of productivity of patterns would have to take into consideration questions such as register, variety and diachronic development. Other factors are already
canvassed in the literature, e.g. words that occur only in headlines or in poetic diction should probably be discounted (Bauer 2001:57), or at least counted as being in a
register of their own. Words in overtly humorous contexts should probably be treated
circumspectly (see also above with reference to tainterer). Schultink (1961) wants
to exclude all words which are consciously formed, but not only does this seem too
restrictive, it is not operationalizable (Plag 1999:14; Bauer 2001:68).

6 Conclusion
The notion of actual word is a highly fraught one, although it seems absolutely basic
to any study of morphological productivity. When the evidence that is provided by
large corpora is brought to bear on the problem, the issues with the notion seem to
get worse rather than better. Attested may not imply acceptable; acceptable may not
imply grammatical; attested may or may not imply actual.
When we are considering word-formation, arguments from asterisks may be inadvisable from a practical point of view, but there is also evidence from variability
10 Baayen and Lieber have the frequency of new morphologically simplex words as the baseline, above

which things count as productive, which is a much better justified level and rather more inclusive than this
proposal, which is really just included to allow for the argument.

L. Bauer

of morphological outcomes that they are likely to be theoretically inadequate. This

conclusion arises if we take a point of view that there is some statistical element
involved in determining the potentiality of an unfamiliar word. In other words, we
assumealong with a growing number of scholarsthat word-formation rules do
not necessarily have a single possible output but may have several. Such a notion
raises questions about our traditional views of productivity, since we may no longer
be able to decide definitely in any given set of circumstances what is or is not a
possible word. Our view of productivity is also changed if we see the degree of productivity of any particular morphological process as being part of the input (one of
the conditioning factors) in a word-formation rule, and not simply the result of the
use of that word-formation rule. Apparently, even very low productivity levels have
an effect.
Clearly, conclusions like this should be controversial: they have many implications
for the form of the morphological component and the nature of morphology. Thus this
paper is intended to open up discussion in this area, and provoke responses about the
nature of productivity, the form of word-formation rules, and the nature of possible

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