LINGUIST List 11.485

Tue Mar 7 2000

Review: Van Valin & LaPolla: Syntax

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  1. dradu, Review: Syntax. Structure, Meaning and Function

Message 1: Review: Syntax. Structure, Meaning and Function

Date: Wed, 10 Nov 1999 03:06:47 -0500 (EST)
From: dradu <>
Subject: Review: Syntax. Structure, Meaning and Function

[Moderator's note: Due to an inexcusable mistake on are part 
of the LINGUIST list, the publication of this review has 
been delayed. Our sincere apologies to Drs Daniliuc and Drs. 
Van Valin and La Polla.]

Syntax. Structure, meaning and function
by Robert D. Van Valin, Jr. & Randy J. LaPolla
1997 Cambridge University Press
714 pages

Reviewed by Laura and Radu Daniliuc

Conveying meanings a language involves a relationship 
between a stream of sounds and a meaning, and this 
relationship is mediated by grammar, a heart component of 
which is syntax. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics presents 
an introduction to syntactic theory written by Van Valin, 
Jr. and LaPolla.

Syntax. Structure, Meaning and Function offers an 
alternative to the standard generative view of the topic and 
is designed for both introductory and advanced courses in 
theoretical syntax. The structure of the book is largely 
based on Role and Reference Grammar and many parts of the 
theory are elaborated on the basis of the main RRG concepts, 
such as the layered structure of the clause, semantic 
macroroles, potential focus domain, pragmatic pivots, 
juncture and nexus. However, the two authors also present 
various theories and individual works that fall within this 
perspective; some of them are mentioned in the epilog: 
Rijkhoff's theory of noun phrase structure from Functional 
Grammar, the notion of constructional template adapted from 
Cognitive Grammar, Lambrecht's theory of information 
structure, Pustejovsky's theory of nominal qualia, the 
pragmatic analysis of Kuno, Bolinger and Bickerton, and 
Jackendoff's opinions on reflexivization. 

The general perspective from which this book was written 
defends the view that the communicative functions of 
language are central to the analysis of its structure. 
Language is viewed as an abstract system, one which is 
nonetheless firmly grounded in human communication and 
cognition. One (but not the only) function of language is 
reference and predication, i.e. representing things that 
happen in the world and the participants involved in these 
situations. In this view, syntax is not the central aspect 
of language. 

The result is a framework for the analysis of syntax from 
the communication-and-cognitive perspective. In the same 
spirit, Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla postulate that grammatical 
structures are stored as constructional templates, each with 
a specific set of morphosyntactic, semantic and pragmatic 
properties, which may be combined with other templates to 
form more complex structures. RRG assumes that there is a 
set of syntactic templates representing the possible 
syntactic structures in the language, which are stored in 
the 'syntactic inventory', and that there is a separate 
lexicon containing lexical items, morphemes and other types 
of lexical entities.

Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla present syntactic phenomena from a 
wide range of languages (Bambara, Italian, Dyirbal, 
Japanese, French, Turkish, Lakhota, Thai, Icelandic, 
Russian, Sama, Mparntwe Arreente, Croatian, and, of course, 
English). Their goal is two-folded: first, to present an 
explanatory theory of syntax which can address the major 
issues in contemporary syntactic theory; and second, to 
present a descriptive framework which can be used by field 
linguists for writing grammars.

Each chapter ends with a set of exercises providing practice 
with the concepts introduced in the text and with some 
suggestions for further reading.
Chapter I deals with the goals of linguistic theory and lays 
out the theoretical background against which both 
theoretical and descriptive current work in syntax is 
carried out. It sketches a set of general goals which the 
majority of linguists would give assent to: describing 
linguistic phenomena, explaining linguistic phenomena, and 
understanding the cognitive basis of language. 
Chapter II investigates the structure of phrases and clauses 
in simple sentences. The two authors present a theory of 
morphosyntactic structure, very much semantically based, 
which elucidates the structure of simple sentences and noun 
phrases. Special attention is paid to predicates and their 
arguments. The universal aspects of the layered structure 
are based on two oppositions: first, between predicating and 
non-predicating elements, and second, between those noun 
phrases or prepositional phrases which are semantic 
arguments of the predicate and those which are not. Van 
Valin, Jr. & LaPolla states that there are two types of 
structure: relational, dealing with the relations between 
one syntactic element and another, be they syntactic, 
semantic or pragmatic in nature, and non-relational, 
expressing the hierarchical organization of phrases, clauses 
and sentences.

Semantic representations are the focus of Chapters III and 
IV, whose framework is taken from Rispoli's RRG work on the 
acquisition of verbs in English and Japanese. The reader is 
presented a classification of the kinds of events, actions 
and situations that sentences express and of the roles that 
the participants in these states of affairs may play. 
Chapter III presents a system of lexical representation for 
verbs, other predicating elements and their arguments. The 
logical structures form the basis of the semantic 
representation for clauses and whole sentences. In this 
system, thematic relations play no direct role in lexical 
representation; the relevant semantic properties of verbs 
are expressed by the decompositional logical structure 
representations, not by thematic relations. The semantic 
representation of the predicate in the nucleus is the heart 
of the semantic representation of the clause as a whole. Van 
Valin, Jr. & LaPolla base their system of lexical 
decomposition on the distinctions in 'Aktionsart' originally 
proposed by Vendler.

Chapter IV deals with the notion of 'semantic macrorole' and 
investigate the semantic representation of non-derived 
nouns, deverbal derived nominals, possessive phrases and NP 
adjuncts, and NP operators. It also discusses the lexicon, 
focusing on what kind of information needs to be represented 
in lexical entries and in lexical rules. Macroroles are seen 
as generalizations across the argument-types found with 
particular verbs that have significant grammatical 
consequences. They are primarily referred to by grammatical 
rules. Languages vary as to whether the privileged syntactic 
argument must be a macrorole or not.
Pragmatic relations are the main subject of Chapter V. The 
authors discuss different kinds of information structure, 
such as the pragmatic states of referents in the minds of 
the speech act participants and the pragmatic relations 
between these referents and the propositions in which they 
play the role of predicates or arguments. They also talk 
about focus structure in simple sentences, introducing a 
distinction between the potential focus domain (the 
syntactic domain in which the focus element(s) may occur) 
and the actual focus domain (the actual part of the sentence 
in focus) of a sentence.

Syntactic relational structure is the main topic of Chapter 
VI, which focuses on grammatical relations as primitives 
(underived from anything else) and as derived from other 
syntactic, semantic or pragmatic phenomenon. Following the 
distinction proposed by Keenan, the authors argue that 
grammatical relations have two distinct and in principle 
independent types of properties: coding properties (case and 
the other morphological properties, such as verb agreement) 
and behavioral properties (defining the role of the noun 
phrase in grammatical constructions). This chapter presents 
some of the conceptions of grammatical relations proposed by 
different linguistic theories and the implications for 
theory and analysis of each of the major conceptions. Van 
Valin, Jr. & LaPolla investigate several languages from the 
point of view of the universality and comparability of 
grammatical relations. Their alternative theory of 
grammatical relations states that grammatical relations 
exist only where there is a restricted neutralization of 
semantic or pragmatic relations for syntactic purposes. 

Taking into consideration all the information provided in 
the previous chapters, Chapter VII discusses in detail the 
linking between syntax and semantics in simple sentences, 
i.e. between semantic and syntactic representations, which 
are not derivational. Consequently, Van Valin, Jr. & LaPolla 
examine a wide range of grammatical phenomena: voice, case 
marking, agreement, reflexivization (both as type of 
anaphoric phenomenon and as an operation on the argument 
structure of the verb) and WH-question formation.

The structure of complex sentences and noun phrases is 
discussed in Chapter VIII. In RRG, the theory of the units 
is referred to as the theory of juncture, while the theory 
of relations as the theory of nexus. In this perspective, 
there are three levels of juncture (nuclear, core and 
clausal), and three possible nexus relations (possible at 
all three levels of juncture) among the units in the 
juncture (coordination, cosubordination, subordination). 
Based on the data provided in this chapter, Van Valin, Jr. & 
LaPolla state that languages have a category of what they 
call 'clause-linkage markers' which serve to express 
important aspects of the syntax and semantics of complex 
Based on chapters VII and VIII, Chapter IX investigates how 
semantic representations and syntactic representations are 
linked in complex sentences, i.e. linking in different 
juncture-nexus types, linking in complex noun phrases 
constructions, especially relative clause constructions, 
reflexivization in complex constructions. The heart of the 
grammar is the linking algorithm governing the mapping 
between semantic representation and syntactic 
representations. The authors propose an account of the 
restrictions on the so-called 'long-distance dependencies' 
involved in WH- question formation, topicalization and 

The epilog, The Goals of Linguistics Revisited, presents a 
brief survey of issues in language acquisition, which shows 
that the theory of syntax presented by Van Valin, Jr. & 
LaPolla can serve as an explanatory framework for the 
analysis of language acquisition and child language. The 
authors have found enough evidence to argue that the 
grammatical phenomena are learned on the basis of the 
initial cognitive endowment presented by Braine, Slobin, 
Bruner and others, together with the input received by the 
children from caregivers. This result confirms Van Valin's 
conviction that grammatical structure can only be understood 
with reference to its semantic and communicative functions, 
i.e. to semantics and pragmatics, opinion to which we open-
heartedly subscribe.

- ------------
The reviewers - Laura and Radu Daniliuc - Iasi , ROMANIA - 
are BA in English Language (Linguistics) and Literature, 
members of SSA, authors of the first complete Romanian 
translation of F. de Saussure's "Courses" and of other 
articles on generativism and applied linguistics. Their main 
interests include: generativism (P&P theory, minimalist 
structures etc) and computational linguistics. [other info 
available on request]
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