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What Is Construction Grammar?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term construction grammar refers to several related grammar theories that view form and meaning as inseparable. Instead of having several different theories concerning various aspects of a language, these theories analyze grammatical constructions as a whole, whether whole sentences or small phrases. Semantics, syntax, and pragmatics are all considered parts of construction grammar.

In 1977, George Lakoff published “Linguistic Gestalts,” a reaction to generative grammar, a theory begun by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s. Generative grammar holds that every child is born with knowledge of a universal grammar which can be applied to any natural language. In addition, this theory maintains that anyone can learn how to create a proper sentence in any situation simply by figuring out the rules.

Construction grammars developed out of the opposite belief: that children learn grammatical rules from their environment. Furthermore, they state that some seemingly proper constructions do not follow set rules, such as “there-constructions” and “let alone” phrases in English. Linguists such as Lakoff, Charles Fillmore, and Paul Kay developed the first construction grammar theories in the early 1980s to deal with these difficulties.

According to construction grammar, form and meaning are simply opposite ends of a spectrum, called the syntax-lexicon continuum. Syntax refers to the meaning created by the way the words are ordered and combined to create a construction, while lexicon refers to meanings of the words themselves. In other words, since the words and the way they are put together are so closely connected, no one can study one without studying the other. Construction grammars consider the idea of constructional polysemy to be false; instead, they maintain that every construction has a different meaning, even if the same words are used. For example, in this theory the active sentence, “John throws the ball,” has a different meaning than the passive sentence, “The ball is thrown by John.”

The concept of Frame Semantics is generally assumed by all construction grammars. Frame Semantics is the linguistic theory that no word can be understood without a full understanding of its context. This context is known as a semantics frame. For example, the word “school” cannot be understood without knowledge of words such as student, teacher, learning, or subject.

Many specific construction grammars have developed since Lakoff's findings were published. Goldbergian or Lakovian Construction Grammar is based on the studies of Adele Goldberg and Lakoff. Belgian scientist Luc Steels developed Fluid Construction Grammar for use with artificial intelligence. Other theories include Radical Construction Grammar, Embodied Construction Grammar, and Cognitive Grammar.

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