Defining 'periphrasis': Key notions

Dunstan Brown, Marina Chumakina, Greville Corbett, Gergana Popova, Andrew Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


We examine the notion of '(inflectional) periphrasis' within the framework of Canonical Typology, and argue that the canonical approach allows us to define a logically coherent notion of periphrasis. We propose a set of canonical criteria for inflectional morphology and a set of canonical criteria for functional syntax, that is, syntactic constructions which include functional elements and which express grammatical features. We argue that canonical periphrasis is exemplified in our theoretical space of possibilities whenever a cell in a (canonically morphological) inflectional paradigm ('feature intersection') is expressed by a multiword construction which respects the canonical properties of functional syntax. We compare our canonically-based approach with the approach of other authors, notably, Ackerman & Stump (2004), who argue for three sufficient conditions for a construction to be regarded as periphrastic: feature intersection, non-compositionality and distributed exponence. We argue that non-compositionality and distributed exponence, while sometimes diagnostic of periphrasis on a language-particular basis, do not constitute canonical properties of periphrasis. We also examine crucial but neglected syntactic aspects of periphrastic constructions: recursion of periphrases and headedness of periphrastic constructions. The approach we propose allows us to distinguish between constructions in actual languages which approximate the ideal of canonical periphrasis to various degrees without committing us to a categorical distinction between periphrastic and non-periphrastic constructions. At the same time we can capture the intuition that there is in some languages a distinct identifiable set of multiword constructions whose principal role is to realize grammatical features.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-275
Number of pages43
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2012


  • Canonical Typology
  • Inflectional morphology
  • Periphrasis
  • Syntax


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