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Constructional contamination: How does it work and how do we measure it?

Dirk Pijpops and Freek Van de Velde
From the journal Folia Linguistica


In this article, we introduce the effect of “constructional contamination”. In constructional contamination, a subset of the instances of a target construction deviate in their realization, due to a superficial resemblance they share with instances of a contaminating construction. We claim that this contaminating effect bears testimony to the hypothesis that language users do not always execute a full parse while interpreting and producing sentences. Instead, they may rely on what has been called “shallow parsing”, i. e., chunking the utterances into large, unanalyzed exemplars that may extend across constituent borders. We propose several measures to quantify constructional contamination in corpus data. To evaluate these measures, the Dutch partitive genitive is taken under scrutiny as a target construction of constructional contamination. In this case study, it is shown that neighboring constructions play a crucial role in determining the presence or absence of the -s suffix among instances of the partitive genitive. The different measures themselves, however, are not construction-specific, and can readily be used to track constructional contamination in other case studies as well.


We would like to thank Hendrik De Smet and Lauren Fonteyn for insightful discussions about the nature of constructional contamination, Kris Heylen, Dirk Speelman and Eline Zenner for methodological assistance, and Judith Cappaert for participating in data coding. Additionally, we owe thanks to two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions, and to the editor-in-chief, Hubert Cuyckens, as well as to the guest editors of this issue, Karolina Krawczak, Martin Hilpert and Malgorzata Fabiszak, for editorial assistance and useful advice.


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Received: 2015-11-10
Revised: 2016-2-22
Revised: 2016-4-6
Accepted: 2016-5-31
Published Online: 2016-11-8
Published in Print: 2016-11-1

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