Shell nouns as register-specific discourse devices

Fang, A.C. and Dong, M. (2021)

International Journal of Corpus Linguistics

This article provides a corpus-based investigation into shell nouns. Shell nouns perform a variety of referential functions and express speaker stance. The investigation was motivated by the fact that past research in this area has been primarily based on written texts. Very little is known about the use of shell nouns in speech. The study used the ICE-GB corpus of contemporary British English and investigated cataphoric shell nouns complemented by appositive that-clauses across fine-grained spoken and written registers. It has revealed that the deployment of shell nouns is governed by the principle of register formality definable in terms of contextual configurations of the Field-Tenor-Mode complex rather than the mode of production. Additionally, the study has uncovered the frequent use of a small core set of shell nouns common across speech and writing. Hence it argues that shell nouns are part and parcel of spoken and written discourse and that they pertain more to grammar than to lexis.