Cognitive Grammar

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction, by Ronald W. Langacker
 Courtesy of Amazon 

Cognitive grammar is a usage-based approach to grammar that emphasizes symbolic and semantic definitions of theoretical concepts that have traditionally been analyzed as purely syntactic.

Cognitive grammar is associated with wider movements in contemporary language studies, especially cognitive linguistics and functionalism.

The term cognitive grammar was introduced by American linguist Ronald Langacker in his two-volume study Foundations of Cognitive Grammar (Stanford University Press, 1987/1991).


  • "Portraying grammar as a purely formal system is not just wrong but wrong-headed. I will argue, instead, that grammar is meaningful. This is so in two respects. For one thing, the elements of grammar—like vocabulary items—have meanings in their own right. Additionally, grammar allows us to construct and symbolize the more elaborate meanings of complex expressions (like phrases, clauses, and sentences). It is thus an essential aspect of the conceptual apparatus through which we apprehend and engage the world."
    (Ronald W. Langacker, Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Symbolic Associations
    "Cognitive grammar . . . chiefly departs from 'traditional' theories of language in its contention that the way in which we produce and process language is determined not by the 'rules' of syntax but by the symbols evoked by linguistic units. These linguistic units include morphemes, words, phrases, clauses, sentences and whole texts, all of which are deemed inherently symbolic in nature. The way in which we join linguistic units together is also symbolic rather than rule-driven because grammar is itself 'meaningful'  (Langacker 2008a: 4). In claiming a direct symbolic association between linguistic form (what it terms ' phonological structure') and semantic structure, Cognitive Grammar denies the need for an organizational system to mediate between the phonological and semantic structures (i.e. syntax)."
    (Clara Neary, "Profiling the Flight of 'The Windhover.'" (Cognitive Grammar in Literature, ed. by Chloe Harrison et al. John Benjamins, 2014)​
  • Assumptions of Cognitive Grammar
    "A Cognitive Grammar is based on the following assumptions... .:
    1. The grammar of a language is part of human cognition and interacts with other cognitive faculties, especially with perception, attention, and memory. . . .
    2. The grammar of a language reflects and presents generalizations about phenomena in the world as its speakers experience them. . . .
    3. Forms of grammar are, like lexical items, meaningful and never 'empty' or meaningless, as often assumed in purely structural models of grammar.
    4. The grammar of a language represents the whole of a native speaker's knowledge of both the lexical categories and the grammatical structures of her language.
    5. The grammar of a language is usage-based in that it provides speakers with a variety of structural options to present their view of a given scene."
    (G. Radden and R. Dirven, Cognitive English Grammar. John Benjamins, 2007)
  • Langacker's Four Principles
    "A primary commitment to Cognitive Grammar is . . . to provide an optimal set of constructs for explicitly describing the linguistic structure. Its formulation has been guided throughout by a number of principles thought to be helpful in achieving such optimality. The first principle . . . is that functional considerations should inform the process from the outset and be reflected in the framework's architecture and descriptive apparatus. Because the functions of language involve the manipulation and symbolization of conceptual structures, a second principle is the need to characterize such structures at a reasonable level of explicit detail and technical precision. To be revealing, however, descriptions must be natural and appropriate. Thus, a third principle is that language and languages have to be described in their own terms, without the imposition of artificial boundaries or Procrustean modes of analysis based on conventional wisdom. As a corollary, formalization is not to be considered an end in itself, but must rather be assessed for its utility at a given stage of an investigation. That no attempt has yet been made to formalize Cognitive Grammar reflects the judgment that the cost of the requisite simplifications and distortions would greatly outweigh any putative benefits. Finally, a fourth principle is that claims about language should be broadly compatible with secure findings of related disciplines (e.g., cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology). Nevertheless, the claims and descriptions of Cognitive Grammar are all supported by specifically linguistic considerations."
    (Ronald W. Langacker, "Cognitive Grammar." The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens. Oxford University Press, 2007)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Cognitive Grammar." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Cognitive Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Cognitive Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).