The role of the audience in the use of action nominalizations in early modern scientific English [1]

Vera Vázquez-López
Variation, Linguistic Change and Grammaticalization Research Group
Department of English and German
University of Santiago de Compostela


Attention has often been drawn to the frequent use of nominalizations in Early Modern scientific English (Gotti 2006: 679, Banks 2008). However, those texts typically classified as ‘scientific writing’ cannot be considered homogeneous or ‘stationary’ (Halliday and Martin 1993: 54), due to the diversity of their intended audiences and the different areas of knowledge represented.

In this paper, my working hypothesis is that such factors may have played a role in the kinds of nominalizations preferred in different scientific texts. Romance nominalizations would be more prevalent in more academic texts, directed to a learned, professional audience, whereas native nominalizations ending in –ing would occur more frequently in more popular texts. In order to test this, I analyze three categories of medical writing, each with different intended audiences (see Bennett 1970: 141–145, Taavitsainen 2001: 88), namely, academic treatises, surgical treatises and remedybooks.

1. Introduction

This study is concerned with the influence of audience on the use of nominalizations. Authors are generally aware of the kind of audience they are addressing, and as a result may adapt their writing to meet audience expectations (Park 1982: 248). My analysis here will focus on medical writing in Early Modern English (hereafter EModE). There are three principal reasons for this. First, nominalizations have been considered as one of the characteristic features of scientific English and, of course, medical writing is part of this genre. In addition, the EModE period provides interesting evidence here, in that it is the time when the vernacularization of science is at its high point, and new Romance terms are being introduced to enrich English and increase its perceived eloquence Taavitsainen (2002: 205, 2006: 689, Gotti 2006: 657). Finally, this kind of writing includes different categories, specifically remedybooks, surgical treatises and academic treatises, and these are aimed at different audiences. We might suspect that this would have an impact on the type and use of nominalizations employed. In order to assess this I have analyzed the frequency of the native –ing and Romance nominalizations using –(at)ion, –ment, –ance, –age, –ure and –al in the EModE period, and have also looked at their bases, with the aim of finding patterns that may account for the heterogeneity in their use. This list of suffixes was taken from Nevalainen (1999: 395–396), who points out that in EModE they were used to derive abstract nouns expressing action or fact. The same suffixes, except for –al, are also listed by Banks (2003: 129) for creating the nominalized forms of processes.

The term “nominalization” is generally understood in the sense of Bauer and Huddleston (2002: 1696) and refers to “a word-formation process […] [that] involves the formation of a noun from bases of other classes, by affixation, conversion, or phonological modification” and which also includes “cases where one type of noun is formed from another … [and] certain cases of compounding … [such as] compound nouns from verb + preposition.” Similarly, Banks (2003: 129) states that there are three different options for creating the nominalised form of a process: those morphologically identical to their agnate verb, like estimate or change; those having no agnate verb, but which still indicate a process, as with trend or occasion; and finally those which have an agnate verb, but are morphologically different due, for example, to the use of suffixes, like reading or identification. In the present study, I have taken into account only those nominalizations formed by suffixation and referring to actions and processes (i.e. action nominalizations). In other words, all nominalizations discussed here have a “derivational base,” which is a verb, and a suffix. Derivational base is understood in Dalton-Puffer’s (1996: 29) sense as “the most general term for the item to which a derivational suffix does attach.” Suffix, as defined by the Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics (RDLL), is taken to be a “morphological element that is attached finally to free morpheme constructions, but does not occur as a rule as a free morpheme.” There are inflectional and derivational morphemes, but only the latter are relevant here. These “serve both for systematic semantic differentiation (e.g. father: fatherhood –abstract noun) [...] and for determining word class (e.g. read, reader, readable –verb, noun, and adjective).” It should be noted that the term nominalization is understood here in a broad sense. Thus, the English gerund (see end note [2] below for an example) is included. This is motivated by the fact that, in spite of showing some verbal features, English gerunds can occupy the syntactic slot of a noun in a sentence (Jespersen 1940 [1909], Lees 1969 [1960], Declerck 1991, Heyvaert 2003, De Smet 2010). In other words, they have an internal clausal syntax, despite showing the external syntax of a noun phrase. [2]

Section 2 below summarizes the different approaches to the concept of audience. Section 3 deals with the particular characteristics of the three categories of medical writing under analysis, and Section 4 describes the corpus and methodology used. Findings are analyzed in Sections 5 and 6, which deal with the frequency and bases of the nominalizations, respectively. The main findings are summarized in Section 7.

2. Clarifying concepts: audience vs. readership

We know that during the EModE period levels of literacy increased dramatically. This was the result of two main factors: a growth in educational facilities, and the printing press, making books affordable for the middle classes (Salmon 1996: 11, Bennett 1970: 79, Barton 1994: 124). Although it is interesting to know exactly who these readers were, in order to assess their potential impact on the kind of writings of the time it is also necessary to define the concept of audience and to distinguish it from that of “readership,” that is, the actual readers of a particular work.

Park (1982: 249) establishes two different meanings for the concept of audience. The term refers to the “actual people external to a text, the audience to whom the writer must accommodate.” However, it can also be defined as “a set of suggested or evoked attitudes, interests, reactions, conditions of knowledge which may or may not fit with the qualities of actual readers or listeners.” As opposed to speakers, writers do not have their audiences in front of them as they write, so “[t]he historian, the scholar or scientist, and the simple letter writer all fictionalize their audiences, casting them in a made-up role and calling on them to play the role assigned” (Ong 1975: 17). Thus, the writer assigns a set of features to his audience which may or may not coincide with reality. In this sense, audience is always a fiction, as Ong (1975: 12) has pointed out. Although it is difficult to establish a clear identity for an audience, the writer must make an effort to “adjust” and “accommodate” his discourse to the characteristics of this fictional audience (Park 1982: 248). Along the same lines, Hoey (2001: 14) argues that:

[t]he audience of a text is the intended readership, the imaginary person or persons whom the writer addresses and whose questions s/he tries to answer. Ultimately the audience is always a figment of the writer’s imagination since no writer, however skilled, can ever get inside someone else’s mind so completely as to know exactly what they want and need to learn.

Works such as Berkenkotter’s (1981: 393) make the claim that writers whose aim is to persuade, as is the case with scientists (Gross 1990: 5), are more inclined to think about their audience than those who narrate personal histories or whose writing is broadly non-persuasive in character. Focusing on the context of writing in the case of EModE medical texts, many writers would have been aware that not all their potential audience were highly skilled readers, and writers often adapted their writing style to take this into account (Bennett 1970: 82). This sensitivity to the profile of readers can also be seen in the ‘other contexts and other texts’ to which the audience is assumed to have access (Eggins and Martin 1997: 233). Also, some of these new readers were not always specialists in the topic they were reading about, and writers might adopt a plain style of writing to accommodate this, resulting in something that even a less well-informed reader could understand (Bennett 1970: 84). In order to avoid problems arising from the level of sophistication of potential readers, the titles of medical books usually indicated the kind of readers they were intended for. Hence, apart from books designed for professionals such as doctors and surgeons, works were often intended to attract the attention of lay people such as “the good Huswife” or the ordinary householder unable to afford medical attention (Bennett 1970: 144–145; see also Section 3 below).

3. Medical categories

In the EModE period medical writing was relatively heterogeneous owing to its wide range of topics and audiences. Some writing had a professional readership, whereas during the 17th century many other books were written for a lay audience (Bennett 1970: 142). Also published in this period were texts based on lectures on anatomy and surgery given at the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall, which were produced in volumes designed to be convenient to carry to wherever the surgeon might need them, be it for the purposes of teaching or for operations themselves. [3] Another popular topic of the time was that of healing herbs (Bennett 1970: 146). Thus, the wide range of texts published in the medical sphere, written with different types of audience in mind, can be subdivided into academic treatises, surgical treatises and remedybooks.

3.1. Academic or specialized treatises

Academic treatises adopt the most learned level of writing, and were typically intended to foster knowledge among professionals (Taavitsainen 2002: 202). Such learned texts deal with bloodletting, ophthalmology, embryology, urinoscopy, gynaecology, the plague and other diseases, and also include encyclopedic treatises rooted in the academic tradition (Pahta and Taavitsainen 2004: 15). These latter were generally translations of Latin texts, and as such showed certain formal resemblances, imitating the style of the classic works. They usually had a depersonalized mood and referred to medical authorities such as Galen and Avicenna (Taavitsainen and Pahta 1995: 520). Exposition prevailed over instruction, the latter often being embedded in the text. Nevertheless, this was by no means a homogeneous category, and different types of treatises were clearly intended for different audiences. There were general treatises and textbooks, intended for learned specialists and practitioners, but also texts which were intended to be accessible for lay people from the middle classes (Taavitsainen and Tyrkkö 2010: 65–72). Also, there were treatises on specific topics, and these would naturally have specific audiences depending on the topic itself (Pahta and Ratia 2010: 73–99).

3.2. Surgical treatises

This category comprises surgical manuals and anatomical descriptions. Such texts were also considered to be academic, since most of them were compiled by those teaching at universities, and were used for the purposes of instruction (Pahta and Taavitsainen 2004: 15). However, in general terms, these works are considered to be more popular in the sense that they have a practical use, being used mainly by the members of the surgical community, particularly by apprentices (Tyrkkö 2010: 123).

3.3. Remedybooks

The category of remedybooks includes recipe collections with prognostications and charms, and other guides for maintaining health, including regimen texts on diet and exercise, some of which might also be considered to be learned writing (Pahta and Taavitsainen 2004: 15). In general, books in this category are usually associated with popular medicine and their audience is quite broad, their low price making them affordable to a wide range of people, including the social elite, apothecaries, and even yeomen and tradesmen, householders and gentlewomen (Marttila 2010: 107). Regimen and health guides focus on the maintenance of good health rather than on the treatment of illness and their intended audience was the middle and upper levels of society, not least because it was very often the case that those further down the social and economic scale would not have enough money to follow the advice given in these books (Suhr 2010: 111–126). The first texts belonging to this category date from Old English. They were, of course, written in the vernacular (Taavitsainen 2006: 689).

4. Corpus and methodology

From what has been said in Sections 2 and 3 above, it follows that the task of identifying the audience of particular medical texts is potentially challenging, since a particular medical category could have a wide audience. For instance, remedybooks, despite being at the popular end of the continuum, were also used by learned audiences. For practical reasons, I have simplified the picture somewhat in this study, making relatively rigid distinctions between the audiences for the three types of medical texts under discussion. In the case of remedybooks only recipe collections are analyzed, since these exist at the most popular end of the continuum. The reason for the exclusion of regimes and health guides is that the expensive treatments they propose were not affordable for the most popular classes, but only for the middle-upper. Although it must be conceded that recipe collections had a wide audience including the social elite, these texts are at the most popular end of the continuum of medical categories. Therefore, recipe collections are considered to be a better data-source to contrast with the other categories. Thus, remedybooks are identified here with a popular audience. Surgical treatises, despite the fact that some are written by professors, are more popular than academic treatises, and hence their audience is identified here as the surgical community. Finally, academic treatises are related to specialists. For this reason, only data from the subcategory “specific topics” was taken into account, which implies that their audience was formed by learned specialists and professionals. Since my object of study here is how audience accommodation constrains the use and kind of nominalizations employed, it is useful to select those texts intended for the most specialized audiences, in order to maximize differences with the other categories.

The corpus chosen for this study is the Early Modern English Medical Texts (EMEMT) (Taavitsainen et al. 2010). It provides a wide range of texts for the EModE period, covering all the categories, from the most popular to the most learned medical writings.

Nine authors were selected from each of three sub-periods, in an attempt to capture the whole picture of medical writing at the time. Thus, there are native authors such as Thomas Gale and Richard Wiseman as well as translations from foreign authors, including Chauliac and De Vigo. A continuous extract of 5,000 words from the beginning of the corpus text was analyzed for each text. This is considered to be a representative sample of the text, after earlier pilot studies showed that larger samples did not lead to different results. In the case of academic treatises in E1 (1500–1570; see Table 1 below) the number of words is higher, since only two authors were available, making a longer sample of these two texts necessary. All the texts used for each category, as well as their number of words and year of publication, are detailed below in Tables 1, 2 and 3.

Period Year Title Author Words

Newe mater





Grete herbal







Gale, Thomas




Treasurie of commodious conceits


Partridge, John



Garden of health


Langham, William



Alphabetical book


Wood, Owen




London dispensatory


Culpeper, Nicholas



Royal pharmacopoea


Charas, Moyse



Supplement to the compleat servant maid


Woolley, Hannah







Table 1. Number of words analyzed by text in the category of remedybooks

Period Year Title Author Words


Handy warke of surgeri


Braunschweig, Hieronymus



Most excellent workes of chirurgerye


De Vigo, Johannes



Institution of a chirurgian


Gale, Thomas




Qvydos qvestions


Chauliac, Guy de



Whole art of chyrvrgerie


Lowe, Peter



Chyrvrgians closet


Bonham, Thomas




Workes of that famous physitian


Read, Alexander



Of wounds


Wiseman, Richard



Novum lumen chirurgicum


Colbatch, John







Table 2. Number of words analyzed by text in the category of surgical treatises

Period Year Title Author Words


Against sweatyng sicknesse


Caius, John



Dial for all agves


Jones, John




Treatise of melancholy


Bright, Timothy



Preseruation of eie-sight


Bailey, Walter



Gutta podagrica


Holland, Philemon




Sixth book of practical physick

Sennert, Daniel



Morbus anglicus


Harvey, Gideon



Continuation of the account of distempers


Cockburn, William







Table 3. Number of words analyzed by text in the category of academic treatises

The EMEMT does not place texts into specific time blocks, leaving to researchers the choice of a periodization which best suits their purposes. In the present study, the periodization derives from that used in the Helsinki Corpus (HC). My prior research indicates that this division of the EModE period into three blocks (E1, E2, and E3) helps to highlight the tendencies in the frequency of use of nominalizations over the period.

The identification of nominalization in this study is made by using a defined set of suffixes repeated here for convenience: –ing, –(at)ion, –ment, –ance, –age, –ure and –al. This method has been used in previous studies (cf. Biber 1988, Tyrkkö and Hiltunen 2009). It can be argued that this method omits certain kinds of nominalizations, such as that-clauses (That she comes is nice) and nominalizations created by conversion (use). However, this criticism cannot be leveled here, since, as I have previously noted, only nominalizations created by suffixation are to be analyzed. I searched for all the words containing these suffixes, bearing in mind all spelling variants. For the data retrieval, WordSmith 3.0 Concordance was used. This simplifies the task, in that it provides a list with all the words containing a particular suffix. However, false hits were also found, and they had to be discarded manually. For instance, in the case of the –ing suffix, not only nominalizations, but also verbs and other words containing the string “ing,” such as thing or king,were initially listed.

The frequency of nominalizations in a particular text is taken as indicative of the influence that the intended audience may have on the use of nominalizations. In order to make comparisons between texts with different numbers of words, frequencies were normalized per 10,000. Findings for the different audiences were compared and tested for significance using the Chi-square test.

5. Frequency of nominalizations according to origin and audience

The analysis of the frequency of the nominalizations employed took into account the variables of origin and audience. Table 4 (see also Figure 1) shows that, as expected, Romance nominalization is much higher in texts intended for more learned audiences, such as surgeons and specialists on particular medical topics, than in texts intended for wider audiences including laymen.

  Popular Surgeons Specialists Total
–Ing nom.

273 (56.8)

319 (65.4)

388 (81.5)

980  (67.9)

Romance nom.

173 (36)

440 (90.2)

521 (109.5)

1,134 (78.5)


446 (92.8)

759 (155.6)

909 (191)

2,114 (146.4)

Table 4. Overall figures for –ing and Romance nominalizations, according to type of audience and normalized frequencies per 10,000 words

Figure 1

Figure 1. Distribution of –ing and Romance nominalizations, according to type of audience

Romance nominalizations have a normalized frequency of only 36 in texts for popular audiences, while –ing nominalizations are much more frequent (normalized frequency: 56.8). When the audience is composed of surgeons or specialists, the opposite tendency is found, with a higher frequency of Romance than native nominalizations, indeed, more than three times higher than for popular audiences, having relative frequencies of 90.2 (for surgical community) and 109.5 (for specialists). These differences in the proportional distribution of Romance and –ing nominalizations in the three categories of medical texts are shown to be significant. Thus, the application of the Chi-square test gives a significant result of (χ²=40.59, df=1, p=<.0001) when we compare texts for popular audiences with texts for surgeons. Also significant is the difference between popular audiences and specialists (χ²= 40.36, df=1, p=<.0001). However, no statistical differences were found between surgeons and specialists. This similarity in the use of nominalizations in the latter categories may be related to the fact that both were considered to be learned audiences. Therefore, both surgeons and specialists might have a similar command of these formations. According to these data, it seems that the category that behaves most differently in the use of nominalizations is that of remedybooks. As such, these findings are in line with those of Tyrkkö and Hiltunen (2009), although this study is not immediately comparable to mine in that the set of suffixes analyzed is different. Tyrkkö and Hiltunen (2009: 305) find an explanation to the low number of nominalizations in remedybooks in Mäkinen’s (2006) work, where he claims that the scarcity of nominalizations in this category is due to the instructional nature of recipes, since the use of imperatives does not favor the use of nominalizations.

Figure 2 sets out the suffixes used in texts for popular audiences. Both native and Romance nominalizations tend to increase over the course of EModE. This rise is particularly noticeable with Romance nominalizations, whose normalized frequency in fact outnumbers that of –ing nominalizations in E3, with a normalized frequency of 50.9 for –ing nominalizations and Romance nominalizations as a whole at 54.7 (–(at)ion being the most frequent with a normalized frequency of 45.2). The other Romance suffixes can be considered as marginal in this category, showing much lower frequencies of use.

Figure 1

Figure 2. Suffixes used for popular audiences by time period

This tendency can perhaps be explained in terms of audience. As claimed in Section 3.3, these texts belong at the most popular end of the popular-learned continuum, some of their potential readers being householders or gentlewomen. They could read, but specialized terminology with a foreign origin might have been obscure to them. For this reason, authors perhaps favored a plain style, preferring native terms over obscure foreign ones. As can be seen in instances (1) to (3) below, the nominalizations used derive from everyday verbs (cf. boil, come, burn and fret) which can be used in contexts other than the medical field, and as such means that the terms would have been easily understandable by the readers, relating to concepts already present in their semantic repertoire, and thus making the necessary information transfer easier. That is what Gotti (2003: 56) defines as “term metaphor,” namely, a “device used in specialized discourse to create terms drawn from general language.” Furthermore, it must also be taken into account that this category shows a preference for native nominalizations due to its long vernacular tradition (see Section 3.3 above) and hence the introduction of Romance formations is not as strong as in other categories.

(1) If Acrimony of humours, boiling of the blood, want of rest and sleep, accompany Diseases of the Lungs and Brest, you may add to the Emulsions two drams of White Poppy-seed, (...)
(Charas Royal Pharmacopoea 1678)

(2) (...) and they will break flesh easily, and prevent Torments and Agues, and other Griefs, which usually accompany their coming forth.
(Woolley Supplement to the compleat servant maid 1700)

(3) Boyle it with the flowers, and by it selfe in honied water or wine, and drinke it to swage the hote burning and fretting of the bowels, or seethe it in water, and take it with a glister for the same purpose
(Langham Garden of health 1597)

However, it must be noted that there is a remarkable increase in the degree of Romance nominalization in E3 (see examples 4 and 5 below). A plausible explanation for this might perhaps be the influence of other medical categories, where the use of Romance nominalization is much higher than that of native –ing-nominalization.

(4) Mixtures are also sometimes made of a more thick consistency, not much unlike that of ordinary Opiates, which is for the accommodation of such Patients, as cannot take Remedies in Drink.
(Charas Royal Pharmacopoea 1678)

(5) Nor upon those which may be drawn from their parts by assation, pressing, or otherwise, as the Gravies, and Liquors of Meats, &c.
(Charas Royal Pharmacopoea 1678)

When an intended audience is learned, as in the case of surgeons and specialists, Figures 3 and 4 show that native –ing nominals have a higher frequency than Romance nominalizations only in E1, when –ing reaches a normalized frequency of 50.3 in texts intended for surgeons and 86.4 in texts for specialized audiences. However, by the end of the EModE period –(at)ion becomes the most common suffix, reaching a normalized frequency of 110.8 in surgical treatises. In the case of texts for specialized audiences, this increase is yet higher, reaching a normalized frequency of 151.5 in E3.

Figure 2

Figure 3. Suffixes used for surgeons by time period

Figure 3

Figure 4. Suffixes used for specialists by time period

Such a preference for the use of Romance nominalizations may be explained by the fact that some of these works were originally written in French or Latin (see Sections 3.1 and 3.2 above); Jones (1966 [1953]: 68), Russ (1982: 19) and others have argued that when translated into English, the Romance terms may have been maintained due to the difficulty in finding a suitable English term, the vernacular lacking terms of comparable eloquence. Take, for instance, examples (6) and (7) below. They are translations into English, and since there is no suitable native term available, Romance words were maintained. 

(6) And for these causes and reasons they do not reconsolidate with true reconsolidation, after the desolution of their separating, but Nature strengthening always possible things the best that she may, (… )
(Chauliac Qvydos qvestions 1579)

(7) (…) I say first, that all sanguine members may regenerate & knit, by very regenartion & consolidation for continually ther engendreth blood inough (….)
(Chauliac Qvydos qvestions 1597)

Even when these texts were written in the vernacular, Romance texts had such a great influence on them (Taavitsainen 2002: 205) that many authors used Romance terms. Again, this may be due to the lack of available native terms in such a specialized register (Gotti 2006), such as in (8) and (9) below:

(8) For I have known pieces of Splinters, &c. sometimes stick so fast in the inward Parts, or to have been so inclosed, that we could by no means get them out: yet at length, upon Apostemation of the Part, they have thrust forth
(Wiseman Of Wounds 1676)

(9) The third is, in retaining the Lips so brought together, that they may by Consolidation be restored to their former figure.
(Wiseman Of Wounds 1676)

There are other occasions when Romance nominalizations are used despite the availability of native equivalents. For instance, in example (10), the translator maintains the Romance term incision, where he could have used an equivalent native term like cutting. Again in (11), the native author prefers the Romance term amputation over the native cutting.

(10) (…) the Chyrurgions that be ignoraunt in the Anatomie, maye erre in many manners in their incision of sinues and their knittings, (…)
(Chauliac Qvydos qvestions 1579)

(11) Thirdly, the amputation of a lime by reason of a mortification, or some other accident.
(Read Workes of that famous physitian 1650)

A plausible explanation for this goes back to Middle English. Miller (1997: 245) suggests that, in this period, the use of Romance (Latin abstract) terms might sometimes have had stylistic motivations rather than being the result of an absence of an equivalent in Old English (see also Lloyd 2011). In a similar vein, Blake (1992: 507) claims that “Latin words may well carry far more connotation than English words, which were not associated with particular contexts or themes.” It seems that, in Middle English, a preference for Romance nominalizations may have existed in certain contexts in the sense that they appear more “professional” or “specific.” This trend might have been kept during the EModE period. In texts intended for learned audiences such as the surgeon collective or specialist physicians, Romance nominalizations can be used more freely, since it is expected that they will be easily understood.

6. Variation in verbal bases according to audience

This section analyzes the kind of bases that were used in the formation of nominalizations in the medical categories to form the different nominalizations here, in order to test for lexical richness. The lexical richness of a text is usually defined as “a function of the number of types in relation to tokens” (Broeder, Extra and van Hout 1989: 89–90). Lexical richness is closely related to the kind of audience, because the more learned the audience, the richer the lexicon they can handle. Table 5 gives an overview of the number of bases, or types, found for different audiences, and Table 6 and focuses on the bases specific to a particular kind of audience.

As can be seen from Table 5, the highest number of bases is that used with the native –ing suffix in all three categories. This is related to the high productivity of –ing. As Bybee (1985: 134) points out “the most productive forms appear to be those with high type but low token frequency, that is those with many class members, infrequently used.” This difference in the number of bases for intended audiences is statistically significant (χ²=28.34, df= 1, p=<.0001). When analyzed in more detail, and the different text categories compared, it is clear that the most significant differences are found between texts for a popular audience and those for surgeons and specialists. Both surgical and academic treatises, then, are intended for learned audiences, with a rich lexicon related to the medical field, whereas for popular audiences this lexicon might be less developed. Differences are even greater in the case of Romance terminology. Again, lexicon from a Romance origin is quite limited for popular audiences, while in texts for learned audiences is used more freely.

  Popular Surgeons Specialists
































Table 5. Distribution of the bases employed in the formation of nominalizations, per suffix and audience

All subgenres here belong to the medical field, and, as might be expected, some of the bases found occur in two or even all three types of audience, while other bases are specific to a particular one (see Table 6).

  Popular Surgeons Specialists
































Table 6. Number of bases specific to a kind of audience

Table 6 shows that specific bases are more frequent in texts for surgeons and specialists. When bases are shared by texts for popular and learned audiences, the vast majority of these are common, everyday words, with native origins such as bruise, drink, run and stand. As Table 4 above shows, texts for specialists have a preference for Romance nominalizations. For example, surgical and academic treatises show a high number of Romance bases, including compromise, discover or purify. This may be a consequence of their learned audience, as well as of the Romance substratum of these categories (see Sections 3.1 and 3.2 above). However, the frequency of native formations here is still notable.

On the other hand, as I observed in Section 5 above, texts for popular audiences present quite a small number of Romance nominalizations compared to both surgical and academic treatises. Focusing on bases used with the –(at)ion suffix, the most frequent Romance suffix (see Figures 2, 3 and 4 above), bases are more than three times as numerous in texts for learned audiences, in which we find most affinity with the bases used (e.g. contuse, dislocate, preserve). It was often made explicit in texts, however, that even learned audiences might have had problems with these foreign terms, as examples (12) and (13) show. Instance (12) is very illustrative here. Three native nominalizations (overwaking, breathing and drawing) are used to explain not only Romance words such as vigilies, which may be obscure for the reader, but also the hybrid nominalizations ventilating or attracting, which must already have been integrated in the language, given that their Romance bases have been used in the creation of a formation with the native –ing suffix. [4] Nevertheless, the author prefers to leave no room for doubt, and hence introduces a native equivalent. Instance (13) illustrates how some of the Romance nominalizations already known by the audience are also used to clarify the meaning of those Romance words with a more obscure meaning. [5] So, diminution and extenuation are used in the definition of a true and false Marasmus. We might also note that the author decides to give a native equivalent for extenuation, since this Romance term may itself have been obscure for his audience.

(12) Add hereunto the continual vigilies (overwaking, or want of sleep,) melancholique, sorry, dull, lingring passions, the said Hypochondriack patient is præcipitated (forced) into, whereby the spirits being rendred dull, stupid, languid (fainting), and suppressed, are deserted (left) incapable of ventilating (breathing) and purifying the blood, and debilitated (weakened) in attracting (drawing) nutriment for the parts, which consequently must wither and shrink.
(Harvey Morbus Anglicus 1666)

(13) A Marasmus is otherwise distinguish’d into true and false. The former is an equal diminution of all the parts of the body; the latter is an extenuation (shrinking) of a single part only.
(Harvey Morbus Anglicus 1666)

It is worth mentioning that it was also found that both native and Romance bases combine with the –ing suffix (e.g. swimming, curing), whereas hybrids formed from native bases and Romance suffixes are very rare in the corpus. The only instances found are ailment, hinderance, tarriance and tillage.

7. Conclusions

As expected, the findings show that differences exist in the use and origin of the nominalizations used for different audiences. Thus, texts addressed to a popular audience show a preference for native nominalizations, although there is a strong tendency for Romance nominalizations to increase over the course of the EModE period. The preference for native nominalizations in texts for popular audiences may be due to the earlier vernacular origin of remedybooks, but also to the accommodation of their audience. These writings were used by practitioners, but also by common people for whom the cost of a physician was prohibitive. Whereas such people might well have been able to read, they would probably have lacked a good command of Romance terms.

On the other hand, texts for the surgical community and specialists show a higher proportion of nominalizations involving a Romance suffix than of –ing formations. This is so not only because it would have been assumed that a learned audience was able to cope with most of these difficult terms, but also because many such texts were translated from French or Latin, especially the latter. Through this process, many Romance words were adopted into English, since the vernacular lacked specialized vocabulary. Not surprisingly, there is also a wider range of bases for the formation of nominalizations in texts for learned than popular audiences, the former being lexically richer.

In short, we have seen that differences exist in the use and origin of the nominalizations across the categories of medical writing. Although other factors may be at work, it is undeniable that an author’s expectations of his audience plays an important role in accounting for this variation.


[1] For generous financial support I am grateful to the European Regional Development Fund and the following institutions: Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (grants HUM2007-60706 and FFI2011-26693-C02-01), Autonomous Government of Galicia (grant CN2011/011) and Spanish Ministry of Education (FPU grant 200704509). I am also grateful to Teresa Fanego and María José López-Couso for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper, as well as to the audience of my talk at the Helsinki Corpus Festival and to two anonymous reviewers, who provided me with new ideas that improved the final version of this article.

[2] When referring to –ing nominalizations, both nominal (e.g. The reading of the book) and verbal (e.g. Reading the book) gerunds are included (see Jespersen 1940 [1909], Lees 1969 [1960], Chomsky 1970, Pullum 1991 for further details).

[3] The Company of the Barber-Surgeons of London was in charge of creating a programme of lectures for trainee surgeons. This programme consisted of lectures and also practical sessions of dissections (Robinson 1984: 1174).

[4] This term is used here in the sense of a word created by “the combination of prefixes/suffixes with bases of different origin” (Dalton-Puffer 1996: 17), for instance, a word formed by a Germanic affix attached to a Scandinavian base.

[5] The same technique of clarification is applied to foreign adjectives such as præecipitated, languid, deserted or debilitated, although these fall outside the scope of this study.


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