June 2000
Macmillan Reference Ltd
Construction Grammar
#Construction#grammar#psycholinguistics#argument structure#unification#semantics
Goldberg, Adele E.
Adele E. Goldberg.
University of Illinois
1. Basic Concepts
Construction Grammar is a linguistic theory concerned with the nature of speakers' knowledge of
language. Like traditional grammars, Construction Grammar takes the basic
units of language to be form -- meaning pairings, or CONSTRUCTIONS.
1.1. Constructions
A CONSTRUCTION is defined to be a pairing of form with meaning/use such that some aspect of
the form or some aspect of the meaning/use is not strictly predictable from the component parts
or from other constructions already established to exist in the language. On this view, phrasal
patterns, including the constructions of traditional grammarians, such as relative clauses,
questions, locative inversion, etc. are given theoretical status. Words (or really, morphemes) are
also constructions, according to the definition, since their form is not predictable from their
meaning or use. Given this, it follows that the mental dictionary or lexicon is not neatly delimited
from the rest of grammar, although phrasal constructions differ from lexical items in their internal
complexity. Both phrasal patterns and lexical items are stored in an extended `constructicon.'
Elements within the constructicon vary in degrees of idiomaticity. At one end of the idiomaticity
continuum, we find very general, abstract constructions such as the Subject-Predicate
construction; on the other end, we find simple lexical items and constructions with all of their
lexical fillers specified but with non-compositional meanings (e.g., kick the bucket). In between,
we find the full range of possibilities: for example, idioms which have freely fillable positions
(keep/lose x's cool), compositional collocations with fixed word order (e.g., up and down), phrasal
patterns that are only partially productive (e.g. the English ditransitive), phrasal patterns which are
partially morphologically specified (e.g., The Xer, the Yer, as in The less it rains, the better the
Construction Grammar shares the basic and fundamental idea that the construction
(or sign) is central to an account of language with several other current theories including
Head Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Cognitive Grammar, and Montague Grammar. This
view of grammar can be contrasted with the claim made by Principles and Parameters theories
that constructions are entirely epiphenomenal, that they are merely
taxonomic artifacts, explained through the interaction of the principles of Universal Grammar,
once the values of parameters are fixed. Although most aspects of language are highly
motivated, in the sense that they are related to other aspects of the grammar and are nonarbitrary, Construction Grammar holds the view that much of language is idiosyncratic to varying
degrees and must therefore be learned.
1.2 Declarative, mono-stratal representation
A given sentence is licensed by the grammar if and only if there exists in the language a set of
constructions which can be combined (or superimposed) to produce an accurate representation
of the surface structure and semantics of that sentence. An ambiguous sentence is a sentence
for which there exists more than one set of constructions that can be assembled to produce a
possible representation. Constructions are represented declaratively, and any constructions
which do not conflict may be combined to give rise to grammatical expressions. Thus
Construction Grammar is monostratal: no derivations are posited.
Typically, particular sentences (or constructs) instantiate several constructions simultaneously.
For example, the sentence (A) below instantiates the subject-predicate construction, the
ditransitive construction, the determiner construction (the letter), the past tense morphological
construction (fax-ed) and five simple morphological constructions, corresponding to each word in
the sentence:
(A) Elena faxed Ken the letter.
1.3 Integrated information
Conventionalized aspects of both meaning and use are directly related to particular syntactic
patterns within individual constructions. Thus, Construction Grammar does not assume that
syntax is generally isolated or isolatable from semantics or conditions of use. Construction
Grammar also eschews a strict division between the pragmatic and the semantic.
`Frame-semantic' (encyclopedic) meaning is considered fundamental to an adequate
understanding of linguistic entities, and as such is integrated with more traditional definitional
characterizations. Generalizations about particular arguments being topical, focused, inferable,
etc. are also stated as part of the constructional representation. Facts about the use of entire
constructions, including register, dialect variation, etc. are stated as part of the construction as
well. Thus a construction may be posited because of something not strictly predictable about its
frame-semantics, its packaging of information structure, or its context of use.
1.4 Relations among constructions within a language
Constructions do not form an unstructured set, but rather a highly integrated system, based on
general principles of categorization. Constructions are typically closely related to other
constructions, and are in that sense, not arbitrary. Generalizations across constructions are
captured within the theory via an inheritance hierarchy, which allows shared structure to be
For example, an abstract Left Isolate construction is inherited by several different constructions,
exemplified by the following:
the woman who she met yesterday (restrictive relative clause)
Abby, who she met yesterday (non-restrictive relative clause)
Bagels, I like. (topicalization)
What do you think she did? (main clause non-subject wh-question)
Each of the patterns: restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, topicalization, and whquestions requires a distinct construction of its own, owing to its particular formal and pragmatic
properties. But each inherits from the more general Left Isolate construction, which specifies
the properties that are shared. In particular, the LI construction has two sisters, with the
specification that the left sister satisfies the valence requirement of some predicator at an
undefined depth in the right sister; the right sister is a maximal verb phrase,
with or without a subject. Thus the Left Isolate construction serves to capture the generalizations
across these various patterns.
1.7. Formalization
Many practitioners of this theory have adopted the use of a unification based formalism in order to
rigorously detail the specifications of particular constructions. Thus each construction is
represented by an Attribute-Value Matrix (AVM). Each attribute can have at most one value.
Attributes may be n-ary, or may be feature structures themselves.
Any pair of AVMs can be combined to license a particular expression, just in case there is no
value conflict on any attribute. When two AVM's unify, they map onto a new AVM, which has the
union of attributes and values of the two original AVMs.
2. Research Focus
2.1 Data
Research in Construction Grammar has emphasized the importance of attested data, gathered
from discourse or corpora. At the same time, Construction grammarians routinely supplement
corpus data with data gained from introspection, one obvious reason being that corpora do not
contain sentences marked as unacceptable. Another source of data comes from psycholinguistic
2.2 Full Coverage: lexical semantics and marked constructions
There has been a focus on the semantics and distribution of particular lexical items within the
framework, owing to the belief that the rich semantic/pragmatic constraints on individual words or
idiomatic phrases reveals much about our knowledge of language. There has been a great deal
of attention paid to marked constructions within the theory. For example, consider the
Covariational Conditional construction, exemplified by the more you think about it, the less you
understand. Independent knowledge of the and grammatical comparison will not directly predict
that this the relevant class of expressions will exist or have exactly the form and meaning they
have; therefore a distinct construction is posited. Other examples of marked constructions include
the What's X doing Y? construction, exemplified by sentences such as, What's that fly doing in
my soup? And the Nominal Extraposition construction, (e.g. It's amazing the difference!).
As these examples indicate, Construction Grammar aims to account for the full range of facts of
any language, without assuming that a particular subset of the data is part of a privileged “core”.
Researchers argue that marked constructions shed light on more general issues, and serve to
illuminate what is required for a complete account of the grammar of a language. Construction
Grammarians takes the point of view that the ordinary patterns of grammar do not differ
qualitatively from these sorts of quantitatively more complex constructions.
2.3 Argument Structure Constructions
In many current linguistic theories, the form and general interpretation of basic sentence patterns
of a language are taken to be determined by semantic and/or syntactic information specified by
the main verb in the sentence. The sentence patterns given in (1) and (2) indeed appear to be
determined by the specifications of give and put respectively:
1. Chris gave Pat a ball.
2. Pat put the ball on the table.
Give is a three argument verb and is expected to appear with three complements corresponding
to agent, recipient and theme. Put, another three argument verb, requires an agent, a theme and
a location and appears with the corresponding three complements in (2). However, while (1) and
(2) represent perhaps the prototypical case, the interpretation and form of sentence patterns of
a language are not reliably determined by independent specifications of the main verb. For
example, it is implausible to claim that sneeze has a three argument sense, and yet it can appear
in (3):
3. She sneezed her tooth across the yard.
The following attested examples similarly involve sentential patterns that do not seem to
be determined by independent specifications of the main verbs:
4. ‘She smiled herself an upgrade.' (A. Douglas, Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy Harmony
5. 'We laughed our conversation to an end.' (J. Hart. 1992, Sin NY: Ivy Books)
Moreover, verbs typically appear with a wide array of complement configurations. Consider the
verb sew and the various constructions in which it can appear (labeled in parentheses):
6a. Pat sewed all afternoon. (intransitive)
b. Chris sewed a shirt. (transitive)
c. Pat sewed Chris a shirt. (ditransitive)
d. Pat sewed the sleeve shut. (resultative)
e. Pat sewed a button onto the jacket. (caused-motion)
f. Chris sewed her way to fame and fortune. (way-construction)
In Construction Grammar, instead of predicting the surface form and interpretation solely
on the basis of the verb's independent specifications, the lexical verb is understood to combine
with an argument structure construction (e.g., the ditransitive, resultative, the caused-motion
construction, etc.). Verbs constrain the type of argument structure constructions they can
combine with by their frame-specific semantics and particular obligatory roles, but they typically
can combine with constructions in several ways.
It is the argument structure constructions that provide the direct link between surface form and
general aspects of the interpretation such as something causing something else to move,
someone causing someone to receive something, something moving somewhere, someone
causing something to change state, etc. The argument structure constructions, which provide the
basic sentence patterns of a language, directly reflect these types of basic frames of experience.
That is, the skeletal patterns, independently of the main verb, designate such patterns of
experience. Thus constructions are invoked both for marked or especially complex pairings of
form and meaning and for many of the basic, unmarked patterns of language.
3. Future prospects
3.1 Cross-linguistic work
Constructions that are sometimes labeled as the “same” in two languages typically differ subtlely
in their form, their meaning, and/or their use. Thus construction grammarians have generally
been cautious about trying to explain generalizations that may not be exceptionless. There is,
however, a growing body of work on constructions in various languages, and a growing focus on
accounting for cross-linguistic tendencies, similarities and implicational hierarchies.
3.2 Psycholinguistics: Processing and Acquisition
A central claim made by Construction Grammar is that words and phrases are the same basic
type of entity: learned pairings of form and meaning/use. A good deal of interest in the theory has
been generated within psycholinguistics, by researchers in both processing and acquisition,
because they see in Construction Grammar the possibility of a psychologically plausible and
testable linguistic theory.
Construction: a conventional pairing of linguistic form and function, including both phrasal
pattern and morphological stems.
Monostratal: non-derivational; relevant form is surface structure
Frame semantics: rich, encyclopedic knowledge; much like frames or scripts in AI
Argument Structure Constructions: constructions that encode the form and function of simple
basic clause types in a language such as the transitive, ditransitive and resultative constructions.
Unification: formal principle of combination wherein consistent attribute value matrices can be
combined unless there is an overt clash of features.
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