The dynamics of collocation: a corpus-based study of the phraseology and pragmatics of the introductory-it construction
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Through corpus linguistics, words are found to co-occur in regular patterns, and such collocational behavior turns out to be an essential aspect of meaning itself. While corpus linguists have made much headway in describing language use in terms of collocations and their associated lexical sequences – known as phraseology, their corpusdriven approach to grammar has not adequately demonstrated the subtlety and valency involved in the mutual interaction of lexical choices. Such a descriptive model of Pattern Grammar (Hunston and Francis, 1999) is also found to lack firm theoretical underpinnings. The structure under analysis in this study was the introductory-it construction: “it + (modal) + link verb + (modifier) + lexical slot + complement.” By focusing on this construction that allows immense lexicalization possibilities, the present study aimed to illustrate the complex dynamics of collocation by showing how the way a different element is lexicalized affects not only the lexical choice of other elements, but also the semantic meaning and pragmatic function of the construction as a whole. It also aimed to explore how corpus findings can draw on insights from one of the offshoots of generative theory – Construction Grammar. The corpus used in this study was the British National Corpus. More than 160 searches were conducted to identify how the categories of link verbs, modals, modifiers and complements co-pattern with one another in formulating the different phraseologies of the introductory-it construction. It is thus argued, along the lines of Construction Grammar, that the various phraseologies could be considered different constructions in their own right, each with a specific pragmatic function. It is also suggested that a constructional-schematic view of introductory-it provides a coherent account for the variability in fixity and idiomaticity of its phraseologies, where constructions that show similarities in their specifications of form or meaning to the prototypes are embraced in a family resemblance relationship. Pedagogically, it is argued that typical collocations and phraseologies play a significant part not only in building up fluency, but also in empowering learners so that they have the pragmatic competence to linguistically comport themselves in ways felicitous for their illocutionary goals.