construction grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

construction grammar
The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar, edited by Thomas Hoffmann and Graeme Trousdale (Oxford University Press, 2013).


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).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

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 passive forms 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 verb receives 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)