Corpora and the Second Amendment: 'keep' (part 1)

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An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.

With this post, I begin my examination of the corpus data regarding the phrase keep and bear arms. My plan is to start at the level of the individual words, keep, bear, and arms, then proceed to the simple verb phrases keep arms and bear arms, and finally deal with the whole phrase keep and bear arms. I start in this post and the next one with keep.

As you may recall from my last post about the Second Amendment, Justice Scalia's majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller had this to say about the meaning of keep: "[Samuel] Johnson defined 'keep' as, most relevantly, '[t]o retain; not to lose,' and '[t]o have in custody.' Webster defined it as '[t]o hold; to retain in one's power or possession.'" While those definitions could be improved on, I think that for purposes of this discussion, they adequately explain what keep means when it's used in the phrase keep arms. So I'm not going to discuss that data with an eye to criticizing this portion of the Heller opinion.

Instead, I'm going to use the data for keep as the raw material for an introduction to the nuts and bolts of corpus analysis. I suspect that many people reading this won't have had any first-hand experience working with corpus data, or even any exposure to it. Hopefully this quick introduction will enable those people to better understand what I'm talking about when I start to deal with the data that does raise questions about the Supreme Court's analysis.

I'll also be using this post to provide a practical introduction to the approach to word meaning that my corpus analysis will be based on. That approach is sketched out very briefly here, and in considerably more detail here.

(The data that I discuss in this post has is available for download here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Make sure to use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen, rather than, e.g., right-clicking on the files.)

The kind of corpus analysis that I'll be doing is based on the premise (which is shared by lexicographers) that the meanings of words arise from the ways that the words are used, and that looking at corpus data provides a good way to systematically study that usage. There are several different techniques that can be used in such an examination, of which two are relevant here. One is to look at lots of examples of the word being used in context—the word in question (the keyword) together with, say, ten words on either side of it. That method is known as KWIC, which stands for Key Word in Context, and it provides a fine-grained closeup of the keyword's behavior.

It can also be useful to look at the word's use from a broader perspective, in order to see patterns of usage that can't be seen in the results of a KWIC search, because of its narrow focus. That can be done by pulling up a list of the keyword's most frequent collocates—the words that most frequently co-occur with the keyword. Such a list can be enlightening because knowing a keyword's collocates can provide insights into its range of meanings. As we'll see, the use of a particular collocate will often influence or even determine which of the keyword's potential meanings is evoked by the word's use in that context.

The basic concept of a KWIC display should be familiar to lawyers because search results on services such as Westlaw and Lexis are presented in one form of a KWIC display:

[From Westlaw.]

But this kind of interface isn't designed for studying how words are used, and it isn't well suited for that task. In contrast, corpus software provides a kind of KWIC display known as a concordance, which is designed for doing linguistic analysis. For example, here is the KWIC display for the complete COFEA search results for any form of the verb keep, followed immediately by arms (with the beginning and end of each line cut off, but duplicate results included):

With this format, you can quickly scan down the entries to get a quick sense of the different meanings that the people use the word to convey. And to conduct a more detailed analysis, the results can be downloaded to  a spreadsheet and each line can be categorized according to whatever criteria you're interested in. The amount of context that can be seen in the screenshot above will often be sufficient to decide how the usage in that line should be categorized. And the format makes it possible to go through the results quickly; coding 100 lines shouldn't take more than an hour or hour-and-a-half.

As I've noted, a broader view of how a word is used is available by doing a collocate search, which will give you a list of the keyword's most frequent collocates, listed in order of their frequency, and with their frequencies provided. Such a search can be tailored in several ways. First, you can either limit the search to a specific form of the keyword (e.g., keep but not keeps, kept, or keeping), or you can do a single search (called a "lemmatized" search) that covers all of those word forms. Second, you can limit the search to collocates that occur in a specified position in relation to the keyword (before, after, or either one) and to collocates that appear within a specified distance from to the keyword (immediately adjacent; within two words, within three words, etc.). Finally, you can limit the search to collocates belonging to a specified part of speech (nouns, adjectives, whatever), although the part-of-speech tagging process sometimes makes mistakes. And however the search is structured, you can call up a KWIC display for each collocate by clicking on it.

To show you what a collocate list looks like, here is the beginning of the list of words tagged as nouns in COFEA that occur immediately following any form of keep:

Those are the top 10, and here are the other words in the top 50:

men, accounts, slaves, yourselves, things, troops, prisoners, horses, guard, ordinary, tavern, school, books, firing, houses, mercy, faith, secrets, firm, arms, children, asunder, covenant, dogs, hold, matters, store, copies, records, sabbath, burning, garrisons, negroes, anger, com, mankind, minutes, none, sect, sheep, soul, taverns

The top-50 list for words tagged as verbs and as adjectives that appear immediately following any form of keep are as follows:

Verbs: stirring, moving, written, shaking, shut, burning, concealed, locked, running, standing, hid, maintain, plying, covered, doing, going, open, turning, flying, boiling, confined, sending, bound, hovering, scouting, suspended, teazing, thanksgiving, filled, lighted, looking, maintaining, waiting, walking, beating, borrowed, calling, conceal, indemnified, maintained, pouring, pushing, registers, repeating, talking, thansgiving, adjusted, advancing, comprised, containing

Adjectives: open, alive, such, secret, clear, good, clean, fair, regular, close, separate, holy, warm, free, exact, quiet, cool, distinct, aloof, true, hot, low, pure, silent, sacred, bad, dry, ready, full, private, harmless, safe, steady, ordinary, fast, easy, equal, longer, moist, accurate, ignorant, inviolate, seperate, constant, inviolable, compleat, sweet, complete, entire, fresh

(For details about the parameters used in the searches that generated these top-50 lists, see the Technical Note at the end of the post.)

These lists of collocates provide significant information about how keep is used, and that in turn yields significant insights about its semantics.

WHAT WE ARE INTERESTED IN SEEING are the collocations in which the verb is paired with its complement. A complement is a word or phrase that is in some sense necessary in order to complete the meaning of the verb that it goes with. Consider these examples:

*Susan devoured.
*Bill held.
*Richard used.

The asterisks indicate that in the absence of something unusual in the context, these sentences are ungrammatical. And what makes them ungrammatical is that they are semantically incomplete. To devour, to say, to use, or to keep is necessarily to devour something, to say something, to use something, or to keep something. So the verbs in these asterisked sentences need to be accompanied by words that denote the necessary something.

Words or phrases that perform that function are referred to as the complement of the verb. Complements can take different forms. Probably the most well known type of complement is a noun functioning as the verb's direct object: Susan devoured the brussels sprouts; Bill held a bag of groceries in his arms ; Kris used a hammer. But complements can also take other forms: Bill forgot to tell Susan that the brussels sprouts were ready. He is becoming increasingly forgetful.

In addition to fleshing out the verb's meaning, the complement often determines which of the verb's possible meanings is evoked in a given context. The meaning of devour in Susan devoured the brussels sprouts is different from its meaning in Susan doesn't like reading mysteries, but she devours science fiction. Similarly, using a hammer is a different kind of activity than using a computer, and throwing a baseball is different than throwing a baseball game.

As a result, it's possible to learn a lot about a verb's range of possible meanings simply  by looking at a list of the words that are used as its complements. And that is the purpose of the collocate searches that I've been discussing. All three of the relevant lexical categories—nouns, verbs, and adjectives—can act as complements of keep. (I should note that I'm talking now about the verb keep in any of its grammatical forms: keep, keeps, kept, and keeping.)

The most common of the three patterns is keep+Adjective, for which the 100 most frequent collocates account for 3,125 corpus lines). The next-most common pattern is keep+Noun (2,589 lines in the top 100), and finally keep+Verb (707). I'm going to discuss each category in turn, but I'll start with keep+Verb because it's the simplest, and save keep+Noun for last because it's both the most complicated and the most interesting.


Once again, here are the 20 most frequent verbs appearing in COFEA immediately to the right of keep:

stirring, moving, written, shaking, shut, burning, concealed, locked, running, standing, hid, maintain, plying, covered, doing, going, open, turning, flying

From this list we can see that at its simplest, the pattern keep+Verb manifests itself in phrases such as keep stirring, keep moving, keep shaking, keep burning, keep running, keep standing, keep doing, and keep going.

In those phrases, keep is used in such a way that it is more or less synonymous with continue. And examples of keep being used in that way are easy to find in the corpus results:

milk and a little salt, stir them about, and put in a quarter of a pound of butter, keep stirring all the time till it is so thick that you can hardly stir the spoon in it for stiffness

We turned up Cayahaga and encamped — where we staid and hunted for several days; and so we kept moving and hunting until we came to the forks of Cayahaga

put in a pint of cream and a glass of white wine, and keep shaking the pan one way, till it is thick and smooth

The people at Norfolk behaved undevoutly at meeting, kept running out, talking whispering, laughing, gazing about, & c.

In these examples, and others like them, the meaning of the phrase keep VERBing as a whole is determined compositionally—the meaning of the phrase is a function of the meanings of the individual words and the way that they are syntactically combined.

Most people unfamiliar with linguistics or philosophy of language (and certainly most lawyers and judges) probably assume that this kind of compositionality is the norm. Under that assumption, words have preexisting meanings and are simply inserted into grammatical slots, like numbers assigned to variables in a mathematical equation. One immediate difficulty for this assumption is that many words have a variety of possible meaning, so there has to be some way to explain how the appropriate meaning gets selected when the insertion takes place. And one of the important insights that has emerged from the use of corpus analysis in lexicography has been that the meaning of a word in a given context is affected by the context. And that interaction between word meaning and context can be seen in the corpus data that I will be discussing.

I'll start with some examples that involve grammatical structures that are slightly more complex than those of the examples above. Compare (a) and (b):

(a) he was as good as his word for he kept standing on the shore till the packet hoisted [s]ail

(b) Being, in effect, disarmed, he was seized and pinioned, and kept standing, in his shirt only, in that cold season, the space of an hour.

In each of these examples, the phrase kept standing denotes what I'll call an event of continuous standing, and the clause of which the phrase is a part refers to such an event in which some specific person, who I'll call X, was the one who doing the standing. In example (b), however, the clause he was…kept standing also denotes an additional event, in which some other person, Y, did something that compelled X to remain standing. This extra piece of meaning arises from the fact that in (b), kept standing is part of the passive-voice construction was kept standing, which entails that something was done to X that resulted in his continuous standing. (Actually, what's important here is not the choice of passive voice rather than active, but the fact that passive-voice constructions are semantically transitive and that their meaning doesn't differ in any relevant way from their active-voice counterparts. Thus, he was kept standing [by somebody] means the same thing as somebody kept him standing.)

As is true of the intransitive examples discussed above (keep stirring, keep shaking, keep moving) additional examples of keep being used in transitive constructions are easy to find in the corpus data. Here are a few, with the reference to the causal agent being underlined and the reference to the affected object being italicized.

By a light that I kept burning I then sat down to copy the minutes I had taken in the course of the preceding day.

all records and general orders are kept concealed [by somebody], excepting from the individuals who are particularly concerned

You may have observed two folding-doors, which are ever kept locked [by somebody]

What all of this suggests is that when keep+Verb appears as part of an intransitive construction, its meaning can be summarized as 'continue to [Verb]' or 'continue [Verb]-ing', but when it appears as part of a transitive construction, its meaning can be summarized as (roughly) 'cause [something] to continue to [Verb]' or 'cause [something] to continue [Verb]-ing'. Thus, we see a difference in meaning being associated with a difference in grammatical context, and vice versa. That is challenging for the notion that words have predefined meanings, independent of the contexts in which they appear. And it raises questions such as whether there is a strict dichotomy between word meaning and grammar, and whether the focus in analyzing meaning should be on some unit larger than the individual word.


Given that the pattern keep+Verb is the least frequent of the three patterns I've been looking at, one might wonder how much significance to attribute to the results above. But the behavior of the transitive examples of the pattern is mirrored in the behavior of the pattern keep+Adjective, which is the most frequent of the patterns I've been discussing. In particular, the semantic or conceptual core of the two patterns' meaning can be described as what I'll call CAUSATION OF CONTINUATION.

This can be seen in the following concordance lines:

I advised her being got out of bed, and the windows to be kept open; but was in doubt whether she had strength enough to be taken into the open air

Hot Weather melts my Marrow within my Bones, and makes me faint away almost. I have no other Way to keep alive, but by Abstinence from Eating and drinking.

it would be improper for me to mention in this Letter Things which ought to be kept Secret.

Shou’d they however be imprudent enough to make the attempt , I shall keep close upon their heels, and do every thing in my power to make the project fatal to them.

That the money produced by the said general fund be deposited in a chest, and kept separate, by the treasurer of the western shore, for the purposes of this act

The kitchen furniture is always kept clean by scouring and washing

In some of these examples, the activity or force that brings about or enables the continuation is specified: keeping alive "by Abstinence from Eating and drinking", keeping furniture clean "by scouring and washing". But more often, the activity or force isn't identified and has to be inferred based on the context, with greater or lesser specificity. For example, keeping a window open is the result of refraining from closing it, keeping two things separate can result from  putting each one in a different place or from putting a barrier between them, and keeping close to someone results from moving in such a way as to be continuously close to them as they move from one place to another.

As the discussion so far suggests, constructions following the pattern keep+Adjective present much the same challenge to compositionality as do the transitive examples of keep+verb.


As I've said, the data for keep+Noun is more complicated and more interesting than the data for keep+Verb and keep+Adjective. In both of the latter categories, there was variation with regard to the degree of compositionality and semantic transparency of the specific constructions that we've looked at. But for the pattern keep+Noun, the range of variation is much greater. At the same time, though, I think that the conceptual building blocks that I've referred to as CONTINUATION and CAUSATION OF CONTINUATION play a role—or should I say "keep playing a role"— in the meaning of each example of the pattern.

I'm going to discuss some of the words that are among the 100 most frequent noun collocates, ordered more or less according to the degree of compositionality displayed by each construction, starting with those that are the most compositional and moving to those that are the least.

The starting point will be two constructions that behave similarly to each other: keep possession and keep guard. Each of these nouns has a corresponding cognate verb (possess and guard), and the meaning of each construction is similar to the meaning of the corresponding keep+Verb construction. So these constructions mean roughly the same thing as keep possessing, and keep guarding, respectively, and those paraphrases, in turn mean more or less 'continue possessing/guarding' or 'cause to continue to possess/guard'. (To be clear, the meanings do differ, but the differences are subtle and hard to put into words.)

Next up is keep peace, which has at its semantic core the continuation of a condition of peace or peacefulness—or more specifically of one of several different conditions that the word peace can denote (absence of war, absence of public disorder, absence of emotional disturbance,…). In its simplest uses, which parallel the intransitive uses of the keep+Verb pattern, the continued condition of peace is experienced by the person, group, or entity that is referred to by the grammatical subject:

to prevent the Indians from doing mischief, and promised to endeavour to influence all that tribe to keep peace.

There we can see how Christ has commanded his disciples, to keep peace: when he said, Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you

The Design of the Dutch is to keep Peace if possible. No Resentments of Injuries, or Insults—No Regard to national Honour or Dignity, will turn them

In a more complex set of uses, which parallel the transitive uses of keep+Verb, the referent of the subject causes some other group of people to be in a continued condition of peace:

These Guards or Corvs, are slaves who are ordered by the Guardian Bachi to keep peace among the rest of the slaves in the night, and have power to put any one in irons who

can not be where I am of use to my country, I beg to resign. Despite my best efforts to keep peace on board, the men are determined not to sail with the Captain except to America.

THE guards are to be vigilant and alert, and do their utmost to prevent disorder, and keep peace, ever attentive to the security of the camp.

In some of these cases, the "transitivity" is explicitly encoded, as in "keep peace among the rest of the slaves". In other instances, however, it has to be inferred, as in "my best efforts to keep peace on board" and "the guards are to be vigilant and alert, and do their utmost to prevent disorder, and keep peace."

There are also some uses in which the referent of the subject is described as "keeping peace with" some other entity or group. For example:

That they desired by all just means to keep peace, if it may be, with all men even with these barbarians.

necessary, therefore, to show to the French Republic that we are not negotiating through fear; that we are desirous of keeping peace with all the world, so long as we can do it consistent with our honor and independence

These uses  seem to me to combine elements of both transitivity and intransitivity. The condition of continued peace characterizes the relationship between the referent of the subject and the other party, so that it is experienced both by the referent of the subject (as in the intransitive uses) and by the other party (as in the transitive uses).

Keep watch is interesting, because although it uses the noun watch in a way roughly corresponding to the verb watch, its meaning can't be summarized as simply 'continue watching.' If someone were merely watching something happen over a period of time (for example, watching a play or a horse race), one wouldn't say that they were keeping watch. Rather, keep watch means something close to keep guard. It typically involves staying alert to one's surroundings so that one can take appropriate action if some particular kind of event happens (usually something bad). Moreover, the action of keeping watch or keeping guard often occur as part of an organized or at least planned activity, rather than as something that one just happens to do. And in fact, keep watch was sometimes used in a specialized sense to denote what the OED describes as "the action of keeping guard and maintaining order in the streets, esp. during the night, performed by a picked body of the community".

Keep pace is similar to keep watch. Although pace can be used as a verb (e.g., "to move with a measured or regular step; to walk or stride along steadily" [OED]), keep pace doesn't mean continue pacing. Rather, its meaning is explained by the OED as "to maintain the same speed of movement; to advance or progress at an equal or (occasionally) sufficient rate; to keep up with".

We now come to the sense of keep having to do with continued possession of a tangible object, as in keep arms. You might have thought that this was was its literal or central sense, or the one that was most common, but if so, the discussion so far may have disabused you of that notion.

As is true of the keep+Verb and keep+Adjective constructions, the common element running through all the keep+Noun constructions we have looked at has been the element of (CAUSATION OF) CONTINUATION, not of POSSESSION. The only use having anything to do with possession was keep possession, which actually undercuts any suggestion that the idea of POSSESSION is part of keep's central or most basic meaning.

After all, if keep's central meaning had to do with POSSESSION, you wouldn't expect to see the construction keep possession—especially not as the second most common example of the pattern keep+Noun. And the continued-possession sense of keep strikes me as being semantically incompatible with the patterns keep+Verb and keep+Adjective. As far as I know, verbs and adjectives aren't used to denote tangible objects. (Although nouns denoting tangible object can of course be verbed—as in Beryl headed a pass from Macdonald to the right wing—the resulting verb denotes the event rather than the object.) As for the issue of frequency, the patterns keep+Verb and keep+Adjective each occur in COFEA more than three times as often as keep+Noun. And within the latter category, the continued-possession sense is fairly uncommon. Of the hundred most frequent collocate-pairs, keep arms is the only one to have this meaning (although, as we'll see, there are other pairs in which continued possession plays a role). Keep arms is number 29 on the frequency list, and it appears in the corpus only 5% as often as number 1 (keep pace).

If I'm right in thinking that (CAUSATION OF) CONTINUATION is at keep's semantic core, the meaning of constructions like keep arms seems hard to account for in compositional terms. The meaning of the whole is different—more complex—than the sum of the meanings of the two parts. And that has been true to varying degrees of the other constructions we have looked at.

This raises the question whether it makes sense to talk about the meanings of phrases such as keep arms as if they arise from  merely combining the preexisting meanings of the two independent words. That's an issue that I will return to in the next post in this series. But before I close out this post, I want to talk about a number of constructions whose meanings pose an even greater challenge to the idea of compositionality.

These constructions have some similarities to one another, and I am going to discuss them a few at a time, pointing out the similarities as we go along. I will start with keep tavern and keep school, which essentially mean to manage or operate a tavern or a school, respectively:

for the County of Plymouth be impowered (if they see cause) to grant the abovenamed Samuel Brown a Licence to keep Tavern.

Our landlord, who kept tavern at the sign of the black horse, at Charing-cross, furnished us with every requisite

I had several offers to go into the country to keep school in credible families, where I had a prospect of wanting for nothing of the necessaries of this

A person who undertakes the employment of keeping school ought to be competent to the business in which he engages.

Next is keep house, which the COFEA data shows being used in several different ways. I will discuss two of them. The meaning of the first is summarized by the OED as "to manage the day-to-day affairs of a household; to take charge of the house and perform or direct domestic work." (OED). For example:

What think you of your daughters comeing to keep House for you?

Cousin Betsy arrived here on Thursday evening, but Miss White will not let her come to keep house for us

The second usage is glossed by the OED as "to maintain and preside over a household":

I hope you will never suffer such things to be done in your kitchen when you keep house, but always give orders that your lobsters be put into boiling water, which kills them soon, and

Thus with 7 servants and hireing a chore woman upon occasion of company, we may possibly make out to keep house; with less we should be hooted at as ridiculous and could not entertain any company.

The first usage seems to have been used to describe the role of a servant, while the second describes the role of a servant's employer. A similar duality can be seen with respect to constructions such as keep sheep, keep cattle, and keep dogs. On the one hand, these constructions can be used to denote the activity of watching over and tending to the animals:

He related his history; that he was the son of a stone-cutter, and, when a boy, was employed to keep sheep

Sir Willam Phips was a New-England man, born at Pemaquid in 1650, where he kept sheep until he was 18 years old, then was an apprentice to a ship carpenter.

On the other hand, the constructions can also be used to denote the broader activity of owning and raising livestock and other animals, usually for food, for sale, or for hunting:

Their way of living is by husbandry, and keeping cattle and swine; wherein they do as well, or rather better, than any other Indians,

In these they keep dogs, cats, hogs, geese, and other domestic animals, both for subsistence and sale

those who could afford it, kept dogs of their own, who were better trained to the game, and could better scent the forest, being native curs

As the OED notes, when keep is used in this way, the activity it denotes includes elements of possession by the keeper and of using or exploiting the animals for the keeper's benefit. Note also that keeping livestock and domestic animals entails feeding them and otherwise caring for them; that element of providing sustenance can also be seen usages having to do with family member rather than animals:

an old foolish parson, who, she said laughing, kept a wife and six brats on a salary of about twenty pounds a year

It is expensive keeping a Family here.

Constructions such as those are not the only ones in which the elements of meaning that characterize the keeping of animals (possession, exploitation, and providing sustenance ) also play a role with regard to the keeping of human beings. Consider keep prisoner(s), as to which the element of confinement is analogous to the element of possession in some of the uses of keep sheep, keep cattle, and so on:

whole bill of cost was exacted of every one of them, which each of them must pay down, or be kept prisoners till they did, though all seven of them were jointly informed against in one information. Thus Mr.

fled to the Czarina 's court; That in the mean time his country was seized, and his wife and children [were] kept prisoners: while there, the Czarina gave him expectations, that in her treaty with the Turks, she would take care and

present insecure situation of many of the public gaols of this slate, and Vw the great hazard and danger of keeping prisoners until they are brought to trial at the slated and fixed times of holding courts, as eftablilhed by law

Keeping prisoners also entails feeding and housing them, which resonates with the providing-sustenance sense , and which is highlighted in some usages:

For the maintenance and repair of light houses, beacons, piers, stakes and buoys, sixteen thousand dollars. For the expense of keeping prisoners committed under the authority of the United · States, four thousand dollars. For the expense of clerks and books

In two other usages, keep concubines and a kept woman, the most prominent element of meaning was that of exploitation for the keeper's personal benefit.

In this manner did things continue till the reign of Henry the Eighth, when dispensations to keep concubines became common to such priests as were able to purchase them

at first, from the loose manner of Mrs. Errington 's behaviour, he concluded she was not a married, but a kept woman

These usages also probably evoked the element of providing sustenance or support, since that was presumably part of the "bargain" between the two parties.

This brings us to a pair of repugnant usages, in which are combined all  of the various elements that we have seen in the constructions I have been discussing: possession, confinement, exploitation, and (solely as a necessary condition of those three) provision of food and housing. I am referring to keep slaves and the even more disturbing keep negroes (with negroes acting as a metonym for slave).

taken from his native country and made a slave and begets children, who by virtue of the original injury are kept slaves, and they beget others, and so on for twenty generations, the first wrong, a robbery of freedom, is continued

the love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable

keeping these slaves, and buying and selling them, they actually encourage and promote the slave-trade: And therefore, in this view, keeping slaves, and continuing to buy and sell them, is to bring on us the guilt of the slave-trade

This reasoning looks something plausible, I confess; but the holy scripture approves of making and keeping slaves; and this surely is sufficient to keep us in countenance.

the Land is too mean to make It worth my While to keep Negroes ther with a Prospect of makeing a Crop. when I could employ Them otherwise to more Advantage

expences and sundry other things to pay, will come nigh if not full as cheap as buying and keeping Negroes; and it will be attended with this advantage, that these White people when they have served some years in

At this point, I hope you'll indulge me in a digression. The parallels with usages involving the keeping of farm animals are striking, given that similar parallels characterized the way that slaves were treated and regarded. That parallel was obvious to 18th-century abolitionists, who referred to slaves as being treated  like "human cattle". That's not surprising, but what is surprising is that the human-cattle metaphor was endorsed shortly before the Civil War in an essay supporting slavery. Or maybe it's not really surprising; after all, the notion that slaves were subhuman animals was a part of pro-slavery ideology.

In any case, I will conclude with a rather chilling fact of etymology. As you may know, the form of slavery in the American colonies and then the United States was known as chattel slavery—a reference to the fact that people who were enslaved were regarded as a form of salable property. Chattel was, and to some extent still is, a legal term for tangible property other than real estate. Well, it turns out that chattel and cattle are etymological siblings. They were both borrowed from the Old French word for 'property', which existed in two regional variants: catel, from Norman French, and chatel from Parisian French. Catel was used in vernacular speech, and its meaning narrowed to mean 'livestock' and ultimately to mean 'cows and bulls'.  Meanwhile, chatel was the form used in legal Anglo-Norman, which is more widely known as Law French, and it retained the original meaning. I will leave to others the question whether this etymological relationship has any historical significance.

*     *     *

In my next post I will step back from this close-up view of the corpus data, and will address the broader significance of what that examination has revealed.

[Cross-posted on LAWnLinguistics.]


Technical note:

As I've noted, the lists of keep's 50 most frequent verb collocates, adjective collocates, and noun collocates exclude collocates whose Mutual Information score was negative. The Mutual Information score for a given combination of words is intended to measure the difference between the frequency with which that combination appears in the corpus and the frequency that would be expected based solely on the respective frequencies of the individual items. For some reason, many of the combinations that had negative Mutual Information scores were irrelevant for purposes of my analysis here. In some cases, for example, the word's part-of-speech tag was inaccurate. In others, the collocate did not function as the complement of keep.

The words and other items that were excluded on this basis are as follows.

Nouns: time, us, people, nothing, order, ∣, mr, store, copies, life, others.

Verbs: said, is, according, was, are, standing, be, united, let, hold, laid, having, ing, observed, provided, were, being.

Adjectives: more, many, great, several, whole, proper, better, small, large, public, late, much, other, young, little.




  1. Philip Taylor said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

    How does this article differ from the article posted on 11/07/2018 23:45 which has an identical subject line ?

  2. Gregory P Kusnick said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    Pardon my confusion, but why is it that when the doors of the churches are kept shut, that's keep+Verb, but when the windows of the bedroom are kept open, that's keep+Adjective?

    [(ng) Because I overlooked that issue when I selected that concordance line. In both cases, the word is used as an adjective. Good catch. I've taken out the church-door example.]

  3. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 4:47 pm

    In response to Philip Taylor's question:

    That was a draft that was published by accident (I clicked the wrong button). I immediately deleted it and in its place I posted "Oops (and apologies)":

    Those of you who got an email alert, or saw a tweet, about a post titled "Corpora and the Second Amendment: 'keep' (part 1)" may be wondering why you don't see that post.

    The reason is that I accidentally posted an unfinished draft; I clicked on "Publish" instead of "Save Draft."

    Maybe I need to stop drafting my posts in WordPress, and go back to using my word processing program (which I won't identify, in the hope that I'll escape Geoff Pullum's scorn).

  4. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

    Consider these examples:

    *Susan devoured.
    *Bill forgot.
    *Richard used.

    The asterisks indicate that in the absence of something unusual in the context, these sentences are ungrammatical. And what makes them ungrammatical is that they are semantically incomplete. To devour, to say, to use, or to keep is necessarily to devour something, to say something, to use something, or to keep something.

    This is clearly incorrect; compare "Susan ate", or, for a closer semantic match, "Susan ate ravenously". The semantics are identical to "Susan devoured", and they are complete. (What did Susan eat? Food! What did Bill forget? Information!) But "Susan ate ravenously" is unquestionably grammatical and standard. The difference is that the direct object complement of "devour" is required while the direct object complement of "eat" is optional, but this is a purely arbitrary matter of syntax.

    To say may necessarily be to say something, but to talk is then necessarily to talk about something, and the about-complement to "talk" is not required at all.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

    Michael Watts:

    I agree with some of what you say but disagree with other points. You are correct in saying that "devour" and "eat" have the same semantics (both are two-place predictates) but different syntax ("devour" requires an explicit direct object but "eat" does not). But that said, I think that it's accurate to say "Susan devoured" is semantically incomplete without a direct object, precisely because the object is syntactically obligatory.

    Nevertheless, I'll grant you that my terminology was a little loosey-goosey.

    Two additional points.

    First, in reading your comment, I realized that "forgot" is not a good example, because the direct object can often be omitted. I've therefore changed "Bill forgot" to "Bill held".

    Second, I think that in "talk about X", it makes more sense to treat the prepositional phrase as an adjunct, not a complement. Even if it's true that "to talk is then necessarily to talk about something", that doesn't mean that "talk" is a two-place predicate. Everything that happens, happens *somewhere*, but I don't think that that generally means that the location is treated as an argument of the verb.

  6. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 10:52 pm

    Other thoughts:

    if keep's central meaning had to do with POSSESSION, you wouldn't expect to see the construction keep possession—especially not as the second most common example of the pattern keep+Noun.

    I don't follow this argument. Why wouldn't you expect that? Redundant and — especially — partially redundant or historically redundant expressions aren't rare.


    It seems to me that the examples given (with one exception I will come to later) of "keep+Noun" all have a pretty obvious commonality which this article never mentions — they have to do with providing regular maintenance to the Noun. Put another way, keeping a bar, home, family, dog, concubine, etc. means that you are the person who provides the bar/home/family/dog/concubine's upkeep. I would tend to agree that this is probably historically related to a core concept of "continuance", where the metaphor is that keeping the bar means you are constantly maintaining it in a state of good working order.

    I don't think it's useful at all to divide uses of keep according to the part of speech of the head of their complement. As you note, your keep+Adjective constructions are equivalent to what you call transitive keep+Verb constructions. (I will note that the keep+Adjective constructions are just as transitive as the +Verb ones.) I would say that this construction involves keep having two complements: a direct object which is being caused to continue in a certain state, and the state which is being continued. That state may be represented as an adjective phrase such as "separate from one another", a participial verb phrase (participles are for many purposes basically equivalent to adjectives) such as "burning", or a noun phrase such as "prisoner(s)" or "slaves".

    You've listed "keep prisoner(s)" under "keep+Noun", but you give examples of two entirely unrelated kinds of sentence both labeled as "keep prisoner(s)":

    1. For the expense of keeping prisoners committed under the authority of the United · States, four thousand dollars.

    2. the great hazard and danger of keeping prisoners until they are brought to trial at the slated and fixed times of holding courts

    3. bill of cost was exacted of every one of them, which each of them must pay down, or be kept prisoners till they did

    4. his country was seized, and his wife and children [were] kept prisoners

    (1) and (2) are examples of the "provide maintenance" sense of keep; they have a direct object and no state complement. They focus on the cost (monetary or otherwise) of maintaining imprisoned people under state control.

    But (3) and (4) are examples of what you describe as the "keep+Adjective" or "transitive keep+Verb" construction — they have a direct object ("them" and "his wife and children") as well as a state complement ("prisoners" in both cases). They discuss causing people to continue in a state of imprisonment (when they would rather go free), not providing necessary upkeep to people who are incidentally prisoners. The same issue arises in the examples of "keep slaves" — "children who by virtue of the original injury are kept slaves" is the "continuance of state" sense, while the other 5 or 6 examples illustrate the "possess/provide maintenance" sense.


    It looks to me like these examples identify four senses of keep:

    1. continuance of action ("keep stirring the pot")
    2. continuance of state ("keep the pot boiling")
    3. continuance of possession ("keep a can of mace for emergencies")
    4. provision of upkeep or maintenance ("keep a family")

    Senses (3) and (4) are often impossible to disambiguate, as in "keep slaves", but I list them separately because they are sometimes possible to disambiguate. I would think of "keep guard" and "keep watch" as being sense (1), despite being "keep+Noun", in the same way that "keep (somebody) prisoner" is sense 2 despite being "keep+Noun". I would think of "keep pace" as being its own lexical entry, a special case.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 11:13 pm

    I've thought better of my final paragraph; on further reflection, it makes more sense to see "keep guard" and "keep watch" as examples of sense (4), whose syntax they share. This makes it easy to distinguish the senses:

    – Continuance of action uses the syntax "keep [ACTION]", where ACTION is a verb phrase using the ING-form.
    – Continuance of state uses the syntax "keep [OBJECT] [STATE]".
    – Continuance of possession and provision of maintenance use identical syntax, "keep [OBJECT]".

    On this analysis, keeping watch means maintaining the (reified) watch in good order, by performing the necessary watching.

  8. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2018 @ 11:17 pm

    There is also an argument for calling "keep guard" and "keep watch" lexicalized special cases, in that both can take a complement marked by over which I do not believe is licensed by either keep or guard independently (though it is licensed by watch):

    Keep guard over the crown jewels.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 2:12 am

    I think that in "talk about X", it makes more sense to treat the prepositional phrase as an adjunct, not a complement. Even if it's true that "to talk is then necessarily to talk about something", that doesn't mean that "talk" is a two-place predicate. Everything that happens, happens *somewhere*, but I don't think that that generally means that the location is treated as an argument of the verb.

    But a location adjunct, for precisely the reasons you describe, doesn't need to be licensed by the verb. It can modify any verb. The about-phrase is specifically licensed by talk, and marks a semantic role that is specific to talking events.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 10, 2018 @ 7:46 am

    The "devour" sidetrack reminds me of Tom Lehrer's song "Smut" (about a different Supreme Court case):

    I've never quibbled if it was ribald.
    I would devour where others merely nibbled.

  11. Alan Munn said,

    August 12, 2018 @ 10:00 pm

    Your list of the 20 "verbal" complements to 'keep' mixes adjectives and verbs. 'stirring, moving, written, shaking, shut, burning, concealed, locked, running, standing, hid, maintain, plying, covered, doing, going, open, turning, flying'. All of the past participle forms you've categorized as verbs here are adjectives. And how did 'maintain' get in there?

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