Constructions and pragmatics: Variable middle marking in Spanish subir(se) 'go up' and bajar(se) 'go down'

Rena Torres Cacoullos, Scott A. Schwenter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The Spanish intransitive motion verbs subir 'go up' and bajar 'go down' variably appear with the middle marker se. In this study, we examine aspectual (telicity, punctuality) and pragmatic (counter-expectation, speaker involvement) analyses of se-marking. Adopting the variationist method, we operationalize and test hypotheses via quantitative analysis of variation between the middle se-marked and non-se-marked forms in corpora of spoken and written Mexican and Peninsular Spanish. Variability in se-marking is structured, as shown by recurrent patterns reflected in frequencies of co-occurrence. We adduce evidence that factors in speakers' choice of the middle se-marked form include a focus on the moment of change (operationalized by co-occurring locative preposition), the foregrounding of the situation (clause type), the topicality of the subject (subject expression), and speaker involvement (grammatical person, tense-mood-aspect); that is, a confluence of aspectual and pragmatic factors. Multivariate analysis further reveals that se-marking is most likely to occur in a particular 'enter-exit a vehicle' subir-bajar construction. A number of other constructions with clear se-marking preferences also emerge from the data. Rather than generalizations about abstract structures, the empirical results reveal usage-based constructions of differing degrees of lexical specificity and fixedness. A usage-based constructions approach allows us to dispense with a grammar-pragmatics dichotomy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1455-1477
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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