Shell noun phrases in scientific writing: A diachronic corpus-based study on research articles in chemical engineering

Yunyun Wang, Guangwei Hu

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


A key feature of scientific writing is the use of shell noun phrases to turn human experiences into abstract entities. This paper reports on a diachronic study of shell noun phrases in 120 chemical engineering research articles over a span of 40 years, focusing on their lexico-grammatical patterns, functional categories and alternative expressions. A corpus-based analysis revealed a significant decline of cataphoric shell noun constructions, a substantial decline in discourse and cognition shell noun phrases and concomitant changes in the frequencies of alternative constructions (i.e., reporting clauses). These observed patterns of shell noun use can be explained by the joint influences of a general move toward greater authorial visibility in the academic writing of hard disciplines, disciplinary developments specific to chemical engineering, the informalization of academic discourse in response to the perceived need for knowledge and identity negotiation, and the functional interrelationships among various linguistic resources. They demonstrate that diachronic changes to academic writing are contextually embedded and respond to discipline-internal developments, shifting epistemologies, larger social changes, and the versatility of linguistic resources.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)178-190
Number of pages13
JournalEnglish for Specific Purposes
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


  • Chemical engineering
  • Diachronic change
  • Scientific writing
  • Shell nouns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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