Definition and Discussion of Lexical-Function Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Perfect Grammar Not Needed
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In linguistics, lexical-functional grammar is a model of grammar that provides a framework for examining both morphological structures and syntactic structures. Also known as psychologically realistic grammar.

David W. Carroll notes that the "major significance of lexical-functional grammar is the shunting of most of the explanatory burden onto the lexicon and away from transformational rules" (Psychology of Language, 2008).

The first collection of papers on the theory of lexical-functional grammar (LFG)--Joan Bresnan's The Mental Representation of Grammatical Relations--was published in 1982. In the years since, notes Mary Dalrymple, "the growing body of work within the LFG framework has shown the advantages of an explicitly formulated, non-transformational approach to syntax, and the influence of this theory has been extensive" (Formal Issues in Lexical-Functional Grammar).

Examples and Observations

  • "In LFG, the structure of a sentence consists of two distinct formal objects: C[onstituent]-structure of the familiar kind plus a functional structure (or F-structure) which displays certain additional kinds of information. Most important in the F-structure is the labeling of grammatical relations like subject and object (these are called grammatical functions in LFG).
    "The first part of the name reflects the fact that a great deal of work is done by the lexical entries, the 'dictionary' part of the framework. Lexical entries are usually rich and elaborate, and each one inflected from a lexical item (such as write, writes, wrote, written and writing) has its own lexical entry. Lexical entries are responsible for dealing with many relations and processes handled by different machinery in other frameworks; an example is the voice contrast between actives and passives."
    (Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2007)
  • Different Kinds of Structures
    "A natural language utterance is rich in structures of different kinds: sounds form recurring patterns and morphemes, words form phrases, grammatical functions emerge from morphological and phrasal structure, and patterns of phrases evoke a complex meaning. These structures are distinct but related; each structure contributes to and constrains the structure of other kinds of information. Linear precedence and phrasal organization are related both to the morphological structure of words and to the functional organization of sentences. And the functional structure of a sentence--relations like subject-of, object-of, modifier-of, and so on--is crucial to determining what the sentence means.
    "Isolating and defining these structures and the relations between them is a central task of linguistics. . . .
    "Lexical Functional Grammar recognizes two different kinds of syntactic structures: the outer, visible hierarchical organization of words into phrases, and the inner, more abstract hierarchical organization of grammatical functions into complex functional structures. Languages vary greatly in the phrasal organization they allow, and in the order and means by which grammatical functions are realized. Word order may be more or less constrained, or almost completely free. In contrast the more abstract functional organization of languages varies comparatively little: languages with widely divergent phrasal organization nevertheless exhibit subject, object, and modifier properties that have been well-studied by traditional grammarians for centuries."
    (Mary Dalrymple, John Lamping, Fernando Pereira, and Vijay Saraswat, "Overview and Introduction." Semantics and Syntax in Lexical Functional Grammar: The Resource Logic Approach, ed. by Mary Dalrymple. The MIT Press, 1999)
  • C(onstituent)-Structure and F(unctional) Structure
    "LFG contains multiple parallel structures each modeling a different aspect of linguistic structure. The main syntactic structures are (c)onstituent-structure and f(unctional) structure . . .
    "C-structure models the 'surface' syntactic form of language: it is here that surface precedence and dominance relations are encoded. C-structures are phrase-structure trees, characterized by a particular form of X' theory . . . designed to accommodate the large amount of phrase structure variation found cross-linguistically, from the relatively strict configurationality of languages like English to the more radically non-configurational languages of Australia. . .
    "C-structures are always base-generated; there is no movement. . . . [T]he effect of movement is achieved by the fact that different c-structure positions can be mapped into the same f-structure via unification.
    "The level of f-structure models grammatical relations. Unlike c-structures, which are phrase structure keys, f-structures are attribute-value matrices. F-structure attributes may be grammatical functions (e.g. SUBJ, OBJ, COMP, also nonargument functions TOP(IC), FOC(US)), tense/aspect/mood categories (e.g. TENSE), functional nominal categories (e.g. CASE, NUM, GEND), or the predicate (semantic) attribute PRED. . . . The contents of f-structure come from the lexical items of the sentences themselves, or annotations on the nodes of the c-structure linking pieces of c-structure to parts of the f-structure."
    (Rachel Nordlinger and Joan Bresnan, "Lexical-Functional Grammar: Interactions Between Morphology and Syntax." Non-Transformational Syntax: Formal and Explicit Models of Grammar, ed. by Robert D. Borsley and Kersti Börjars. Blackwell, 2011)

Alternate Spellings: Lexical-Functional Grammar (capitalized)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Discussion of Lexical-Function Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Discussion of Lexical-Function Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Discussion of Lexical-Function Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).