The impact of text type, information structure, and discourse relations on the use of verb second in Middle English

A case study on Chaucer's prose texts


  • Sophie Whittle University of Sheffield



V2, V3, Middle English, Chaucer, Text types, Information structure, Discourse relations, Language contact, Diachronic change


There have been many contributions to the understanding of how and why the non-subject-initial verb second (V2) phenomenon (i.e. subject-verb inversion) declined in Middle English, yet there are few perspectives that explore the factors driving the considerable amount of intra-writer variation in V2. In particular, there is limited research on the type of text, and whether authors’ syntax mirrors the weakened link between syntax and information structure that drove V2 usage in late medieval English (e.g. Bech 2001, 2014; Los 2009, 2012; van Kemenade 2012; van Kemenade & Westergaard 2012; Hinterhölzl & van Kemenade 2012). Appealing to the status of information structure in late medieval English, and briefly, the discourse relations present within the text, I argue that Chaucer’s use of V2 reflects a verb movement pattern that no longer made a verbal position available based on the information-structural status of the sentence. I show that this change in non-subject-initial V2 is evidenced in three of Chaucer’s prose works, and that its frequency is closely tied to the information status of the beginning of the sentence and the subject in driving inverted and non-inverted structures. I suggest that it is the nuances of text type and their rhetoric, and their interaction with the (non)-existence of information structural pressures, that accurately explains the occurrence of XVS and XSV structures. This Chaucerian V2 analysis serves as an exemplar study for understanding how texts might represent the collective impact of a range of factors on syntactic change, and the forces behind the instability of V2 in the history of English.