Periphrastic Constructions in Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In English grammar, a periphrastic construction is one in which an independent word or multi-word expression has the same role as an inflection, such as the use of the auxiliary will with another verb to form the future tense.

Periphrasis in the grammatical sense is a back-formation from the adjective periphrastic. For the rhetorical and stylistic sense of the term, see periphrasis (rhetoric).

Examples and Observations

  • "A tense is inflectional if it is realized as an affix on a head (in English, a verb), periphrastic if it is realized as an independent word. Thus the English past is inflectional, but the future is periphrastic, co-opting the modal will."​ (Jeremy Butterfield, The Arguments of Time. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • "The roots of the periphrastic forms for the future, perfect, and pluperfect can be found as early as Old English. These were established in Middle English, although the simple present and preterite forms were still possible in some contexts in which Present-Day English would use periphrastic constructions." (Matti Rissanen, "Syntax," Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 3, ed. by Roger Lass. Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Comparison of Adjectives: Inflected and Periphrastic Patterns

"There are two patterns of comparison of adjectives, the inflected and the periphrastic. The inflected pattern adds -er to the positive degree: small becomes smaller, happy becomes happier. To form the superlative degree, it adds -est: smallest, happiest. The periphrastic pattern uses the adverbial intensifiers more and most: the comparatives of beautiful and ostentatious are more beautiful and more ostentatious; the superlatives are most beautiful and most ostentatious.

The generalizations that seem to account for whether we choose the inflected pattern or the periphrastic are these: (1) most one- and two-syllable adjectives use the inflected pattern; (2) adjectives of three and more syllables almost always use the periphrastic; (3) the higher the frequency of two-syllable adjectives, the more likely they are to inflect for comparison; (4) the periphrastic more and most may on occasion be used with any one-syllable or high-frequency two-syllable adjective, e.g., more dear, most happy."​ (Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993)

The Periphrastic Possessive

"To attribute possessiveness to inanimate objects we generally use the periphrastic possessive, that is a prepositional phrase (beginning with a preposition and followed by a noun). For the inanimate examples, we might expect the following: (Bernard O'Dwyer, Modern English Structures: Form, Function, and Position. Broadview, 2006)

  • The expense of getting wool down to the side of the ship would eat up the farmer's profits.
  • The director of the clinic made no bones about the underlying problem.
  • After spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, I was given sick leave for a month.

The Evolution of Periphrastic be going to

"We will describe a recent English change, the rise of periphrastic be going to ... In the periphrasis stage, a periphrastic construction is employed for a particular function. In the case of the English future, a combination of a motion verb (go) and a purpose clause (to + infinitive) is employed for a future function. This stage is motivated most likely to avoid misunderstanding, although expressiveness is also sometimes invoked. . . . The construction be going to probably spread from the closely related meaning of a motion event undertaken with an intended future outcome (the purpose clause).

In the fusion stage, the periphrastic construction becomes a fixed, distinct, independent construction employed specifically for the function in question. . . . This stage has clearly occurred with future be going to: it is fixed in the use of the specific verb go and the present progressive form. Finally, erosion occurs: as the construction becomes entrenched, it is phonologically and morphologically reduced . . .. The future be going to has commonly be reduced to the contracted form of be plus the reduced unit gonna."​ (William Croft, "Evolutionary Models and Functional-Typological Theories." The Handbook of the History of English, ed. by Ans van Kemenade and Bettelou Los. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Pronunciation: per-eh-FRAS-tik