Prof Sylvia Adamson


Sylvia Adamson completed her undergraduate and postgraduate education at the University of Cambridge, in the English Faculty and the Department of Linguistics respectively.

After an appointment at the University of Strathclyde, where, together with Colin MacCabe and Alan Durant, she founded the Programme in Literary Linguistics, she returned to Cambridge to take up the post of University Lecturer in English Language.

In 1999, she joined the University of Manchester as Professor of Linguistics and Literary History, and in 2004 moved to Sheffield as Professor of Renaissance Studies in the School of English. She has held Visiting Professorships in the USA (at the University of Virginia) and in Europe (at the University of Naples) and has been Visiting Research Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford and at the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics in Cambridge. She is currently President of the Philological Society, the UK's oldest association for the study of language.


Professor Adamson's research and publications range across the three fields covered by the Sheffield School of English -- literature, language and linguistics -- with particular interests in grammaticalisation, subjectivity, narrative, rhetoric and the history of English.

She sees her work as belonging within the tradition of the early Cambridge School critics, Richards and Empson, in its concern with the interrelations between linguistics and literary study, especially as they bear on the psychology of reading. Her distinctive contribution is the introduction of a diachronic dimension to these concerns.

Most work in literary linguistics has been synchronic and, where non-contemporary texts are discussed, it is typically within the framework of a contemporary linguistic theory (as witness recent applications to King Lear of models drawn from cognitive linguistics or politeness theory).

By contrast, she has consistently aimed to historicise texts and their interpretation by tracing:

  1. the relation between linguistic change and stylistic choice;
  2. the historical evolution of styles of writing and styles of reading.

To take two examples, her work on narrative was the first to establish on linguistic grounds an evolutionary continuum between the Puritan conversion narrative and the Romantic bildungsroman (see below, Adamson 1994, 1995, 2001d) and her contributions to volumes 3 and 4 of the Cambridge History of the English Language constitute the first modern attempt to write an explanatory history of literary style from the Renaissance to the present day (see below, Adamson 1998b, 1999).

She is generally regarded as the UK's leading exponent of historical stylistics.

Since 2002, Professor Adamson has been working on a large-scale project, initially undertaken with the aid of a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust (2002-5), entitled Poetry and Parts of Speech: The Study of Grammar and the Practice of Literature 1570-1970. Some of the outcomes of this project appear in the list of selected publications below (see Adamson 2004, 2007d, 2010)

Selected Publications

  • Adamson, Sylvia (1989) `With double tongue: diglossia, stylistics and the teaching of English', in Reading, Analysing and Teaching Literature ed. M.Short, London: Longman, pp.204-240.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1990a) `The What of the Language?', in The State of the Language 1990 ed. C.B.Ricks & L.Michaels, California: the University Press, pp.503-514.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1990b) Papers from the 5th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, ed. S.Adamson, V.Law, N.Vincent & S.Wright, published as Current Issues in Linguistic Theory: 65, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 583pp.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1993) `Varieties, stereotypes, satire -- and Shakespeare', in Aspects of English as a World Language ed. Y.Ikegami & M.Toyota, Tokyo: Maruzen, pp.225-245.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1994a) `Subjectivity in narration - empathy and echo', in Subjecthood and Subjectivity ed. M.Yaguello, Paris: Ophrys, pp.193-208.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1994b/1995a) `From empathetic deixis to empathetic narrative: stylisation and (de-)subjectivisation as processes of language change', Transactions of the Philological Society, vol. 92 no. 1, 1994, pp.55-88. Reprinted, with minor changes, in Subjectivity and Subjectivisation ed. S.Wright & D.Stein, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.195-224
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1995b) `Empathetic narrative - a literary and linguistic problem', in Syntax and the Literary System ed. W.Ayres-Bennett & P.O'Donovan, Cambridge: Cambridge French Colloquia, pp.17-42.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1998a) `The Code as Context: language-change and (mis)interpretation' in Context in Language Learning and Language Understanding, ed. K.Malmkjaer & J.Williams, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.137-168.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1998b) `The Literary Language', in The Cambridge History of the English Language, 4, 1776-the present day, ed. S.Romaine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.589-692.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (1999) `The Literary Language', in The Cambridge History of the English Language, 3, 1476-1776, ed. R.Lass, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.539-653.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2000) `A lovely little example: word order options and category shift in the premodifying string', in Pathways of Change: Grammaticalization in English, ed O. Fischer, A. Rosenbach & D. Stein, Amsterdam: John Benjamins (Studies in Language Companion Series, 53), pp.39-66.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2001a) Reading Shakespeare's Dramatic Language: A Guide, ed. S. Adamson, L. Hunter, L. Magnusson, A. Thompson & K. Wales. London: Arden Shakespeare, 321pp.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2001b) `The grand style', pp 31-50 of Adamson (2001a).
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2001c) `Understanding Shakespeare's grammar: studies in small words', pp 210-236 of Adamson (2001a).
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2001d) `The rise and fall of empathetic narrative: a historical perspective on perspective', in New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective, ed. W. van Peer & S. Chatman. New York: SUNY Press, pp.83-99
  • Adamson. Sylvia (2004) ‘The prepositional pun: from poetry to psychobabble’. A revised and abbreviated version of the paper given to the Federation of Finnish-British Societies, October 2004 (jointly sponsored by the British Embassy and the University of Helsinki English Department), published in the Finn-Brits Magazine, Autumn 2004.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2006) 'Deixis and the renaissance art of self-representation.' SEDERI 2006 (The Yearbook of the Spanish Society of Renaissancists) A revised and expanded version of the plenary paper given to the 14th SEDERI conference, Lisbon, 2004.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2007a) Updating Keywords, a special issue of Critical Quarterly, 49.1, Spring 2007, co-edited by S. Adamson & A. Durant. (Based on papers first presented at the Keywords Workshop in Sheffield in 2006.)
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2007b) Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. S. Adamson, G. Alexander & K. Ettenhuber. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2007c) 'Synonymia, or in other words', chapter 1 of Adamson (2007b).
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2007d) 'Prescribed reading: pronouns and gender in the eighteenth century'. In Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics, November 2007 (
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2008) 'Working out the interest: Williams, Empson and Jane Austen'. Critical Quarterly 50.1-2: 103-119.
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2009) History and Structure in the English Noun Phrase. A special issue of Transactions of the Philological Society (TPhS 107.3) co-edited by S. Adamson & V. Gonzalez-Diaz. (Based on papers first presented at the Sheffield Noun Phrase Workshop in 2008)
  • Adamson, Sylvia (2010) 'Questions of identity in Renaissance drama: new historicism meets old philology'. In Shakespeare Quarterly 61.1: 56-77.