Construction grammar

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In linguistics, construction grammar groups a number of models of grammar that all subscribe to the idea that knowledge of a language is based on a collection of "form and function pairings". The "function" side covers what is commonly understood as meaning, content, or intent; it usually extends over both conventional fields of semantics and pragmatics.

Such pairs are learnt by hearing them being used frequently enough by others. Uses of constructions may happen and be acquired in mainstream or everyday language, but also in linguistic subcultures that are using a sociolect, dialect, or in formal contexts using standard languages or jargon associated with greater sociolinguistic prestige in comparison to plain language.[1]

Construction grammar (often abridged CxG) is thus a kind of metalinguistic model, letting the door open to a variety of linguistic theories. It is typically associated with cognitive linguistics, partly because many of the linguists that are involved in construction grammar are also involved in cognitive linguistics, and partly because construction grammar and cognitive linguistics share many theoretical and philosophical foundations.

Some history

Historically, the notion of construction grammar developed out of the ideas of "global rules" and "transderivational rules" in generative semantics, together with the generative semantic idea of a grammar as a constraint satisfaction system. George Lakoff's "Syntactic Amalgams" paper in 1974 (Chicago Linguistics Society, 1974) posed a challenge for the idea of transformational derivation.

Construction grammar was spurred on by the development of Cognitive Semantics, beginning in 1975 and extending through the 1980s. Lakoff's 1977 paper, Linguistic Gestalts (Chicago Linguistic Society, 1977) was an early version of CxG, arguing that the meaning of the whole was not a compositional function of the meaning of the parts put together locally. Instead, he suggested, constructions themselves must have meanings.

Construction grammar was developed in the 1980s by linguists such as Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay, and George Lakoff. Construction grammar was developed in order to handle cases that intrinsically went beyond the capacity of generative grammar.

The earliest study was "There-Constructions," which appeared as Case Study 3 in George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.[2] It argued that the meaning of the whole was not a function of the meanings of the parts, that odd grammatical properties of Deictic There-constructions followed from the pragmatic meaning of the construction, and that variations on the central construction could be seen as simple extensions using form-meaning pairs of the central construction.

Fillmore et al.'s (1988) paper on the English let alone construction was a second classic. These two papers propelled cognitive linguists into the study of CxG.

The grammatical construction in Construction grammar

In Construction grammar, like in general semiotics, the grammatical construction is a pairing of form and content. The formal aspect of a construction is typically described as a syntactic template, but the form covers more than just syntax, as it also involves phonological aspects, such as prosody and intonation. The content covers semantic as well as pragmatic meaning.

The semantic meaning of a grammatical construction is made up of conceptual structures postulated in cognitive semantics: Image-schemas, frames, conceptual metaphors, conceptual metonymies, prototypes of various kinds, mental spaces, and bindings across these (called "blends"). Pragmatics just becomes the cognitive semantics of communication — the modern version of the old Ross-Lakoff performative hypothesis from the 1960s.

The form and content are symbolically linked in the sense advocated by Langacker.

Thus a construction is treated like a sign in which all structural aspects are integrated parts and not distributed over different modules as they are in the componential model. Consequentially, not only constructions that are lexically fixed, like many idioms, but also more abstract ones like argument structure schemata, are pairings of form and conventionalized meaning. For instance, the ditransitive schema [S V IO DO] is said to express semantic content X CAUSES Y TO RECEIVE Z, just like kill means X CAUSES Y TO DIE.

In Construction grammar, a grammatical construction, regardless of its formal or semantic complexity and make up, is a pairing of form and meaning. Thus words are instances of constructions. Indeed, construction grammarians argue that all pairings of form and meaning are constructions, including phrase structures, idioms, words and even morphemes.

Syntax-lexicon continuum

Unlike the componential model, Construction grammar denies any strict distinction between the two and proposes a syntax-lexicon continuum. The argument goes that words and complex constructions are both pairs of form and meaning and differ only in internal symbolic complexity. Instead of being discrete modules and thus subject to very different processes they form the extremes of a continuum (from regular to idiosyncratic): syntax>subcategorization frame>idiom>morphology>syntactic category>word/lexicon (these are the traditional terms; construction grammars use a different terminology).

Grammar as an inventory of constructions

In Construction grammar the grammar of a language is made up of taxonomic networks of families of constructions, which are based on the same principles as those of the conceptual categories known from cognitive linguistics, such as inheritance, prototypicality, extensions, and multiple parenting.

Four different models are proposed in relation to how information is stored in the taxonomies:

  1. Full-entry model
    In the full-entry model information is stored redundantly at all relevant levels in the taxonomy, which means that it operates, if at all, with minimal generalization.
  2. Usage-based model
    The usage-based model is based on inductive learning, meaning that linguistic knowledge is acquired in a bottom-up manner through use. It allows for redundancy and generalizations, because the language user generalizes over recurring experiences of use.
  3. Default inheritance model
    According to the default inheritance model, each network has a default central form-meaning pairing from which all instances inherit their features. It thus operates with a fairly high level of generalization, but does also allow for some redundancy in that it recognizes extensions of different types.
  4. Complete inheritance model
    In the complete inheritance model, information is stored only once at the most superordinate level of the network. Instances at all other levels inherit features from the superordinate item. The complete inheritance does not allow for redundancy in the networks.

Shift towards usage-based model

All four models are advocated by different construction grammarians, but since the late 1990s there has been a shift towards a general preference for the usage-based model.[citation needed] The shift towards the usage-based approach in Construction grammar has inspired the development of several corpus-based methodologies of constructional analysis (for example, collostructional analysis).

Synonymy and monotony

As Construction grammar is based on schemas and taxonomies, it does not operate with dynamic rules of derivation. Rather, it is monotonic.

Because Construction grammar does not operate with surface derivations from underlying structures, it rejects constructional polysemy and adheres to functionalist linguist Dwight Bolinger's principle of no synonymy, on which Adele Goldberg elaborates in her book. [3]

This means that construction grammarians argue, for instance, that active and passive versions of the same proposition are not derived from an underlying structure, but are instances of two different constructions. As constructions are pairings of form and meaning[citation needed], active and passive versions of the same proposition are not synonymous, but display differences in content: in this case the pragmatic content.

Some construction grammars

As mentioned above, Construction grammar is a "family" of theories rather than one unified theory. There are a number of formalized Construction grammar frameworks. Some of these are:

Berkeley Construction Grammar

Berkeley Construction Grammar (formerly also simply called Construction Grammar in upper case) focuses on the formal aspects of constructions and makes use of a unification-based framework for description of syntax, not unlike Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. Some of its proponents/developers are Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay, Laura Michaelis, and to a certain extent Ivan Sag.

Goldbergian/Lakovian construction grammar

The type of construction grammar associated with linguists like Goldberg and Lakoff looks mainly at the external relations of constructions and the structure of constructional networks. In terms of form and function, this type of construction grammar puts psychological plausibility as its highest desideratum. It emphasizes experimental results and parallels with general cognitive psychology. It also draws on certain principles of cognitive linguistics.

Cognitive Grammar

Sometimes, Ronald Langacker's Cognitive grammar framework is described as a type of construction grammar. Cognitive grammar deals mainly with the semantic content of constructions, and its central argument is that conceptual semantics is primary to the degree that form mirrors, or is motivated by, content. Langacker argues that even abstract grammatical units like part-of-speech classes are semantically motivated and involve certain conceptualizations.

Radical construction grammar

William A. Croft's radical construction grammar is designed for typological purposes and takes into account cross-linguistic factors. It deals mainly with the internal structure of constructions. Radical Construction Grammar is totally non-reductionist, and Croft argues that constructions are not derived from their parts, but that the parts are derived from the constructions they appear in. Thus, in Radical Construction Grammar, constructions are likened to Gestalts. Radical Construction Grammar rejects the idea that syntactic categories, roles, and relations are universal and argues that they are not only language-specific, but also construction specific. Thus, there are no universals that make reference to formal categories, since formal categories are language- and construction-specific. The only universals are to be found in the patterns concerning the mapping of meaning onto form. Radical Construction Grammar rejects the notion of syntactic relations altogether and replaces them with semantic relations. Like Goldbergian/Lakovian construction grammar and Cognitive Grammar, Radical Construction Grammar is closely related to cognitive linguistics, and like Cognitive Grammar, Radical Construction Grammar appears to be based on the idea that form is semantically motivated.

Embodied construction grammar

Embodied construction grammar (ECG), which is being developed by the Neural Theory of Language (NTL) group at ICSI, UC Berkeley, and the University of Hawaiʻi, particularly including Benjamin Bergen and Nancy Chang, adopts the basic constructionist definition of a grammatical construction, but emphasizes the relation of constructional semantic content to embodiment and sensorimotor experiences. A central claim is that the content of all linguistic signs involve mental simulations and are ultimately dependent on basic image schemas of the kind advocated by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff and so ECG aligns itself with cognitive linguistics. Like Construction Grammar, Embodied Construction Grammar makes use of a unification-based model of representation. A non-technical introduction to the NTL theory behind Embodied Construction Grammar as well as the theory itself and a variety of applications can be found in Jerome Feldman's From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language (MIT Press, 2006).

Fluid construction grammar

Fluid construction grammar (FCG) was designed by Luc Steels and his collaborators for doing experiments on the origins and evolution of language.[4][5] FCG is a fully operational and computationally implemented formalism for construction grammars and proposes a uniform mechanism for parsing and production. Moreover, it has been demonstrated through robotic experiments that FCG grammars can be grounded in embodiment and sensorimotor experiences.[6] FCG integrates many notions from contemporary computational linguistics such as feature structures and unification-based language processing. Constructions are considered bidirectional and hence usable both for parsing and production. Processing is flexible in the sense that it can even cope with partially ungrammatical or incomplete sentences. FCG is called 'fluid' because it acknowledges the premise that language users constantly change and update their grammars. The research on FCG is conducted at Sony CSL Paris and the AI Lab at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.


In addition there are several construction grammarians who operate within the general framework of Construction grammar without affiliating themselves with any specific Construction grammar program. There is a growing interest in the diachronic aspect of grammatical constructions and thus in the importation of methods and ideas from grammaticalization studies. Another area of growing interest is the pragmatics of pragmatic constructions. This is probably one of the reasons why the usage-based model is gaining popularity among construction grammarians. Another area of increasing interest among construction grammarians is that of language acquisition which is mainly due to Michael Tomasello's work. Mats Andrén coined the term multimodal constructions to account for constructions that incorporate both (conventionalized) gesture and speech.

See also


  1. Adele E. Goldberg (2009) The Nature of Generalization in Language (a concise overview of the book "Constructions at Work"). Cognitive Linguistics 20 1: 93-127.
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Further reading

  • Bergen, Benjamin and Nancy Chang. Embodied Construction Grammar in Simulation-Based Language Understanding. In press. J.-O. Östman and M. Fried (eds.). Construction Grammar(s): Cognitive and Cross-Language Dimensions. Johns Benjamins.
  • Croft, William A. (2001). Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Croft, William A. and D. Alan Cruse (2004). Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Feldman, Jerome A. (2006). From Molecule to Metaphor: A Neural Theory of Language . Cambridge : MIT Press.
  • Fillmore, Charles, Paul Kay and Catherine O'Connor (1988). Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of let alone. Language 64: 501–38.
  • Goldberg, Adele. (1995) Constructions: A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Goldberg, Adele (2006). Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hilpert, Martin (2014). Construction Grammar and its Application to English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: CSLI.
  • Langacker, Ronald (1987, 1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. 2 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. and Knud Lambrecht (1996). Toward a Construction-Based Model of Language Function: The Case of Nominal Extraposition. Language 72: 215–247.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. and Josef Ruppenhofer (2001). Beyond Alternations: A Construction-Based Account of the Applicative Construction in German. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. (2004). Type Shifting in Construction Grammar: An Integrated Approach to Aspectual Coercion. Cognitive Linguistics 15: 1–67.
  • De Beule Joachim and Steels Luc (2005). Hierarchy in Fluid Construction Grammar. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence (LNCS/LNAI) 3698 (2005) pages 1–15). Berlin: Springer.
  • Steels, Luc and De Beule, Joachim (2006). Unify and merge in fluid construction grammars. In: Vogt, P., Sugita, Y., Tuci, E. and Nehaniv, C., editors, Symbol Grounding and Beyond: Proceedings of the Third International Workshop on the Emergence and Evolution of Linguistic Communication, EELC 2006, Rome, Italy, September 30–October 1, 2006, Lecture Notes in Computer Science (LNCS/LNAI) Vol. 4211, Berlin. Springer-Verlag. pp. 197–223.

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