Cognitive Linguistics
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The term construction grammar (CxG) covers a "family" of theories, or models, of grammar that are based on the idea that the primary unit of grammar is the grammatical construction rather than the atomic syntactic unit and the rule that combines atomic units, and that the grammar of a language is made up of taxonomies of families of constructions.

In linguistics, construction grammar refers to any of the various approaches to language study that emphasize the role of grammatical constructions--that is, conventional pairings of form and meaning. Some of the different versions of construction grammar are considered below.

Construction grammar is a theory of linguistic knowledge. "Instead of assuming a clear-cut division of lexicon and syntax," note Hoffmann and Trousdale, "Construction Grammarians consider all constructions to be part of a lexicon-syntax continuum (a 'construction')" (Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar, 2013).

Examples and Observations[]

  • "There are several different versions of 'Construction Grammar,' and my account . . . will describe, quite informally, what they have in common. The common idea is that a speaker's knowledge of his language consists of a very large inventory of constructions, where a construction is understood to be of any size and abstractness, from a single word to some grammatical aspect of a sentence, such as its Subject-Predicate structure. Construction Grammar emphasizes that there is a 'lexicon-syntax continuum,' contrary to traditional views in which the lexicon and the syntactic rules are held to be separate components of a grammar. The central motive of Construction Grammar theorists is to account for the extraordinary productivity of human languages, while at the same time recognizing the huge amount of idiosyncratic grammatical data that humans acquire and store. 'The constructionist approach to grammar offers a way out of the lumper/splitter dilemma' (Goldberg 2006, p. 45). The key point is that storage of idiosyncratic facts is compatible with deploying these facts productively to generate novel expressions."
    (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Grammar: Language in the Light of Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • Constructional Meaning
    "Crucially, construction grammars are not derivational. So for example, the active and passiveforms of a sentence are regarded as having different conceptual structures rather than one being a transformation of the other. Since construction grammars depend on the conceptual meaning in context, they can be seen as approaches to linguistics that collapse the classical distinctions between semantics, syntax and pragmatics. The construction is the unit of language, which cuts across these other aspects. So, for example, in They laughed him out of the room, the normally intransitive verbreceives a transitive reading and the situation can be interpreted on the basis of the 'X cause Y to move' construction rather than the sytanctic deviance alone. As a result, construction grammars are proving most useful in understanding language acquisition and are being used for second-language teaching, since it is the meaningfulness of the situation which is of primary importance, and syntax and semantics are treated holistically."
    (R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., edited by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)
  • Different Versions of Construction Grammar
    "Any grammatical theory can be described as offering models of representation of the structure of an utterance, and models of organization of the relationship between utterance structures (presumably, in a speaker's mind). The latter are sometimes described in terms of levels of representation, linked by derivational rules. But construction grammar is a nonderivational model (like, for instance, Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar), and so a more general description of this aspect of grammatical theory is 'organization.'

    "Different versions of construction grammar will be briefly outlined . . .. We survey four variants of construction grammar found in cognitive linguistics--Construction Grammar (in capital letters; Kay and Fillmore 1999; Kay et al. in prep.), the construction grammar of Lakoff (1987) and Goldberg (1995), Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 1987, 1991) and Radical Construction Grammar (Croft 2001)--and focus on the distinctive characteristics of each theory. . . .

    "It should be noted that the different theories tend to focus on different issues, representing their distinctive positions vis–à–vis the other theories. For example, Construction Grammar explores syntactic relations and inheritance in detail; the Lakoff/Goldberg model focuses more on categorization relations between constructions; Cognitive Grammar focuses on semantic categories and relations; and Radical Construction Grammar focuses on syntactic categories and typological universals. Finally, the last three theories all endorse the usage-based model . . .."
    (William Croft and D. Alan Cruse, Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • Background of Construction Grammar
    - "One of the central concepts of linguistics is the Saussurean notion of the linguistic sign as an arbitrary and conventional pairing of form (or sound pattern/signifiant) and meaning (or mental concept/signife; cf., e.g., de Saussure [1916] 2006: 65-70). Under this view, the German sign Apfel and its Hungarian equivalent alma have the same underlying meaning 'apple,' but different associated conventional forms . . .. Over 70 years after Saussure's death, several linguists then explicitly started to explore the idea that arbitrary form-meaning pairings might not only be a useful concept for describing words or morphemes but that perhaps all levels of grammatical description involve such conventionalized form-meaning pairings. This extended notion of the Saussurean sign has become known as 'construction' (which includes morphemes, words, idioms, and abstract phrasal patterns) and the various linguistic approaches exploring this idea were labeled 'Construction Grammar.'"
    (Thomas Hoffmann and Graeme Trousdale, "Construction Grammar: An Introduction." The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2013)

    - "[T]he approach to language which has its basis in the theorizing of Charles Fillmore and his students and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1980s . . . has come to be known as Construction Grammar (for a comprehensive overview of the theory, the reader is referred to Fried and Östman 2004). . . .

    "[One] precursor to Construction Grammar is a model that was also developed at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1970s, within the tradition of Generative Semantics. This was the work of George Lakoff and informally known as Gestalt Grammar (Lakoff 1977). Lakoff's 'experiential' approach to syntax was based on the view that the grammatical function of a sentence constituent holds only in relation to a particular sentence type as a whole. Specific constellations of relations such as Subject and Object thus constituted complex patterns, or 'gestalts.' . . . Lakoff's (1977: 246-247) list of 15 characteristics of linguistic gestalts contains many of the features that have become definitional criteria of constructions in Construction Grammar, including, for example, the formulation that 'Gestalts are at once holistic and analyzable. They have parts, but the wholes are not reducible to the parts.'"
    (Jan-Ola Östman and Mirjam Fried, "Historical and Intellectual Background of Construction Grammar." Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective. John Benjamins, 2004)

CxG is typically associated with cognitive linguistics, partly because many of the linguists that are involved in CxG are also involved in cognitive linguistics, and partly because CxG 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. With the publication Lakoff's "Syntactic Amalgams" paper in 1974 (Chicago Linguistics Society, 1974), the idea of transformational derivation became untenable.

CxG was spurred on by the development of Cognitive Semantics, beginning in 1975 and extending through the 1980's. 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.

CxG was developed in the 1980s by linguists such as Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay, and George Lakoff. CxG was developed in order to handle cases that intrincically 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 (U. of Chicago Press, 1987). 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 CxG[]

In CxG, 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 semantics 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 1960's.

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 X get ants in X's pants means X IS SHAKING WITH FEAR, and kill means X CAUSES Y TO DIE.

In CxG, 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, CxG 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 a continuum: 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 CxG 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There is a general shift towards the usage-based model[]

All four models are advocated in by different construction grammarians, but since the late nineties there has been a shift towards a general preference for the usage-based model. The shift towards the usage-based approach in CxG has inspired several the development of corpus-based methodologies of constructional analysis.

Synonymy and monotony[]

Since CxG is based on schemas and taxonomies, it does not operate with dynamic rules of derivation. Rather, it is monotonic.

Since, CxG 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, which Goldberg eleborates on in her book.

This means that construction grammarians argue that, say, 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, 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, CxG is a "family" of theories rather than one unified theory. There are a number of formalized CxG frameworks. Some of these are:

Construction Grammar[]

Construction Grammar (usually in upper case) focuses on the formal aspects of constructions and makes use of a unification-based framework for description of syntactic, 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 A. 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, the content. Langacker argues that even abstract grammatical units like PoS 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 constrution grammar, which is being developed by 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 is ultimately dependent on basic image schemas of the kind advocated by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff and aligns itself with cognitive linguistics. Like Construction Grammar, Embodied Construction Grammar makes use of a unification-based model of representation.


In addition there are several construction grammarians that operate within the general framework of CxG without affiliating themselves with any specific CxG program. There is a growing interest in the diachronic aspect of grammatical constructions and thus imports 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 grammrians. Another area of increasing interest among construction grammarians is that of language acquisition which is mainly due to Michael Tomasello's work.


  • Bergen, Benjamin & Nancy Chang (2005). "Embodied Construction Grammar in Simulation-Based Language Understanding". In J.-O. Östman & M. Fried, ed. Construction Grammar(s): Cognitive and Cross-Language Dimensions. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. .
  • Croft, William A (2001). Radical Construction Grammar: Syntactic Theory in Typological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Croft, William A. & D. Alan Cruse (200). Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University 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.
  • Lakoff, George (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: CSLI.
  • Langacker, Ronald (1987, 1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vols I-II. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Michaelis, Laura A. & Josef Ruppenhofer (2001). Beyond Alternations: A Construction-based Account of the Applicative Construction in German. Stanford: CSLI.

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