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Review of  The Routledge Handbook of Syntax

Reviewer: Dennis Ott
Book Title: The Routledge Handbook of Syntax
Book Author: Andrew Carnie Daniel A. Siddiqi Yosuke Sato
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 26.3528

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book contains 32 chapters, which are grouped into five thematically coherent parts. Part I is concerned with “Constituency, categories, and structure.”

Chapter 1, “Merge, labeling and projection” by Naoki Fukui and Hiroki Narita, reviews the history of phrase structure in Generative Grammar (GG). Fukui and Narita discuss classical phrase-structure grammar, X-bar Theory and Move-α, and the more recent Merge-based approach with a relational definition of projection (or no inherent projection at all, as in Chomsky’s most recent work). The chapter closes with questions and issues for future research, such as the relevance of linear order to core syntax, the status of labels, and the nature of adjunction.

Chapter 2, “Argument structure” by Jaume Mateu, is concerned with the main questions and approaches in the domain of valency and its relation to lexical semantics. After introducing some central empirical issues such as argument-structure alternations, Mateu proceeds to contrast two general approaches: the PROJECTIONIST view, according to which argument structure is projected from the predicate’s lexical semantics, and the CONSTRUCTIVIST view, according to which the argument structure is constructed in the syntax.

Chapter 3, “The integration, proliferation and expansion of functional categories” by Lisa deMena Travis, surveys the extension of X-bar Theory to functional categories such as C and D, promoting these from “a niggling detail in syntactic structure to […] the defining material of syntactic structure” (60). Travis shows how this development, and its mainstays such as Abney’s DP Hypothesis and Grimshaw’s notion of Extended Projection, led up to the proliferation of functional heads in frameworks such as Cartography and Nanosyntax.

Chapter 4, “Functional structure inside nominal phrases” by Jeffrey Punske, discusses the internal structure of nominals and the crosslinguistic universality of the core categories involved, such as (potentially covert) D. Other topics discussed are the status of Number, Gender, Case etc. as noun-phrase-internal functional categories and the tension between Abney’s widely-adopted DP Hypothesis and the fact that “the noun remains the most fundamental defining element of a nominal” (65), as emphasized by Chomsky and others.

Chapter 5, “The syntax of adjectives” by Artemis Alexiadou, surveys some traditional analyses of adjectival modification, such as approaches that derive prenominal attributive adjectives from postnominal reduced relatives. Other topics discussed include effects on interpretation of AP placement relative to N, the head vs. phrasal status of adjectives, and morphological reflexes of different types of modification. The chapter closes with a brief sketch of Cinque’s recent comprehensive approach.

Chapter 6, “The syntax of adverbs” by Thomas Ernst, starts out by introducing different classes of adverbs/adverbials (predicational, participant-oriented, functional, and domain-related) and major generalizations concerning their relative linear ordering. It then proceeds to outline how and to what extent these generalizations can be accounted for on a SCOPAL approach, where the semantics of adverbs determines their relative ordering, as opposed to a CARTOGRAPHIC approach, which relies on a stipulated cascade of functional heads. Ernst weighs the pros and cons of each approach, arguing that while the former is as yet somewhat underdeveloped, the latter falls short of attaining explanatory adequacy.

Part II of the book covers various “Syntactic phenomena.”

Chapter 7, “Head movement” by Michael Barrie and Eric Mathieu, is concerned with a perennial troublemaker in GG, the apparent displacement of word/morpheme-level categories. After a brief historical review leading up to the classical formulation of Head Movement (HM) and Travis’s Head-movement Constraint, the chapter discusses the putative role of HM in word formation and recent ‘minimalist’ proposals that seek to rationalize or eliminate HM. Various pertinent phenomena, such as V2, long HM, clitic movement, and HM/XP-movement asymmetries in aphasic patients, are mentioned along the way.

Chapter 8, “Case and grammatical relations” by Maria Polinsky and Omer Preminger, focuses on (morphological) case and (abstract) Case in GG. After a brief typology of case systems, the chapter delves into classical Case Theory and its manifestation in phenomena such as Passive, Raising, ECM and Control. The chapter closes with a discussion of the theoretical modeling of Case/case, focusing on Chomskyan agreement-based and Marantzian configuration-based approaches.

Chapter 9, “A-bar movement” by Norvin Richards, takes the seminal discussion in Chomsky’s “On WH-movement” as its starting point and illustrates various properties of operator movement discovered since. The bulk of the chapter discusses typological variation in A-bar movement, e.g. with regard to pied-piping vs. stranding, overt vs. covert and multiple vs. single WH-movement, and manifestations of ergativity in extraction. A/A-bar asymmetries, island effects, COMP-trace phenomena, parasitic gaps, and other relevant issues are briefly illustrated using mostly English data.

Chapter 10, “The syntax of ellipsis and related phenomena” by Masaya Yoshida, Chizuru Nakao, and Ivan Ortega-Santos, discusses the analysis of incomplete expressions, focusing on clausal ellipsis of the sluicing/stripping variety. The chapter surveys arguments for structure inside ellipsis sites, universal extraction of ellipsis remnants, and the possibility of antecedent-ellipsis mismatches. Appended are brief discussions of gapping and Japanese argument ellipsis.

Chapter 11, “Binding theory” by Robert Truswell, is a thorough discussion of the scope and limits of classical Binding Theory (BT), supplemented with discussions of variable binding, Reinhart’s Rule I, ZICH-type and long-distance reflexives, and post-GB developments in BT. After a discussion of the intricacies of detecting reconstructed binding dependencies in movement configurations, the chapter closes with a survey of the current state of and the most urgent questions for research in BT.

Contrary to its rather neutral title “Minimalism and control,” Chapter 12 by Norbert Hornstein and Jairo Nunes is not a discussion of the phenomenon of Control per se, but a comparison of the Movement Theory of Control (MTC) with the traditional approach in terms of a special empty category PRO (here represented by Idan Landau’s work). Focusing on and defending the former approach, the chapter adduces arguments that PRO is really an A-trace (in compliance with the Duck Principle: “If something walks, talks and defecates like a duck, the default position is that it is a duck,” 240), which in certain cases (chiefly, adjunct control) requires “sideward movement.”

Chapter 13, by Yosuke Sato and Nobu Goto, bears the rather general title “Scrambling,” but focuses narrowly on scrambling in Japanese; other languages are mentioned only in passing. The chapter addresses four central issues: the question of how the basic word order can be determined in a language with free word order; the type of movement instantiated by scrambling phenomena; the trigger of scrambling; and its syntactic properties. Each issue is addressed in turn on the basis of Japanese data.

Chapter 14, by Kumiko Murasugi, addresses three interrelated phenomena: “Noun incorporation, nonconfigurationality, and polysynthesis.” Each phenomenon is introduced in its various empirical manifestations and subsequently discussed from a theoretical point of view, summarizing the major strands of research. The discussion is then synthesized in a concluding discussion, which highlights the progress made so far and the challenges ahead.

Part III of the book shifts the focus of attention to “Syntactic interfaces.”

Chapter 15, “The syntax-semantics/pragmatics interface” by Sylvia L.R. Schreiner, surveys phenomena at the intersection of structure and interpretation. After introducing various themes such as compositionality, Theta Theory, and Quantifier Raising, the chapter proceeds to sketch how these issues have been approached in various frameworks within GG, including a short overview of the development of formal semantics. The syntax-pragmatics connection is touched on briefly.

Chapter 16, “The syntax-lexicon interface” by Peter Ackema, discusses the interaction between information stored in the lexicon and syntactic processes (where the lexicon is understood, following Di Sciullo and Williams, to be the locus of the “lawless”). The chapter discusses the nature of thematic roles and their realization in syntactic structure, the Theta Criterion, the status of external arguments, and argument-structure alternations and their theoretical modeling as either lexical or syntactic operations.
Chapter 17, “The morphology-syntax interface” by Daniel Siddiqi, discusses the relationship between word and sentence structure. Siddiqi contrasts the main camps – Lexicalism (strong and weak) and what he calls Anti-Lexicalism – and discusses the historical backdrop from which they emerged, e.g. the introduction of the lexicon in Chomsky’s ASPECTS and his subsequent seminal discussion of non-productivity and idiosyncrasy of derivational morphology in “Remarks on nominalization,” the Split-morphology Hypothesis, etc. The remainder of the chapter presents arguments for and against both sides.

Chapter 18, “Prosodic domains and the syntax-phonology interface” by Yoshihito Dobashi, summarizes theoretical approaches to the interdependence of prosodic and syntactic structure. The chapter proceeds in a chronological fashion, reviewing the most important theories of syntax-phonology interaction. Among the topics discussed are the Prosodic Hierarchy, Nespor and Vogel’s relation-based approach and Selkirk’s competing edge-based approach to prosodic phrasing, and the relation between Phase Theory and phonological-phrase formation.

Part IV of the book considers “Syntax in context.”

In Chapter 19, “Syntactic change,” Ian Roberts relates diachronic changes in syntactic expression to the theory of parametric variation. Roberts argues that parameters are interdependent and organized hierarchically; as constraints on acquisition paths, they define the space of synchronic and diachronic development alike: “language change” is nothing but language variation. After laying the conceptual groundwork for this approach, the chapter discusses various instances of change against this backdrop (grammaticalization phenomena, changes from OV to VO order, and the loss of V-movement).

Chapter 20, “Syntax in forward and in reverse” by Matthew W. Wagers, discusses the relation between syntactic form and memory in language processing. Departing from the Sentence-superiority Effect discovered in early work, which demonstrated the facilitating effect of regular syntactic structure on ‘chunking’ and correspondingly on accuracy of retrieval from memory, the chapter discusses how sentences and dependencies are retained in memory. The phenomenon of agreement attraction is discussed in some detail as a case study.

Chapter 21, by by Susannah Kirby, surveys “Major theories in acquisition of syntax research.” The two main camps are identified as NATIVISM and EMERGENTISM: the former assumes that UG innately specifies principles and parameters to be set, whereas the latter assumes that the innate endowment merely furnishes general learning mechanisms permitting gradual abstraction from exemplars. The two approaches are compared with regard to the acquisition of basic word order and WH-dependencies.

Chapter 22, “The evolutionary origins of syntax” by Maggie Tallerman, addresses the question of how the I-language phenotype – whose major building blocks are identified as compositionality, linearity, and constituency – arose in evolutionary development. Tallerman notes that animal communication systems show no evidence of a comparable internal make-up, and thus are unlikely to offer any insights. She reviews the “saltational account” of the emergence of Merge hypothesized by Chomsky and others and goes on to contrast it with Bickerton/Jackendoff-type claims of an antecedent “protolanguage” and different hypothesized stages thereof.

Part V, “Theoretical approaches to syntax,” presents a number of different schools that developed within and outside of GG. Chapter 23, “The history of syntax” by Peter W. Culicover, sketches the historical development of “Mainstream Generative Grammar” and its offshoots. Culicover illustrates the major shifts, from SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES to Standard Theory (incorporating strata, a lexicon etc.) and (Revised) Extended Standard Theory (adding LF, X-bar Theory, and traces), on to GB and the advent of the Minimalist Program in the early 1990s. In addition to these central developments, Culicover includes brief asides on Generative Semantics, Antisymmetry, HPSG, LFG, Relational Grammar, and Role and Reference Grammar.

Chapter 24, “Comparative syntax” by Martin Haspelmath, contrasts two opposing traditions in the study of syntactic typology: a ‘Greenbergian,’ functional-typological tradition, which Haspelmath labels “nonaprioristic,” and a ‘Chomskyan,’ generative/formal tradition, which he labels “restrictivist.” The former approach emphasizes differences between languages and makes no a priori assumptions about universality in either description or explanation. The latter approach assumes that a universal core of language is specified by the biological endowment, and hence that languages are uniform at some level of abstraction. The chapter goes on to present a number of (putative) syntactic universals and outlines which factors each approach might marshal in their explanation.

Chapter 25, “Principles and Parameters/Minimalism” by Terje Lohndal and Juan Uriagereka, reviews major tenets of the Minimalist Program (MP), which Lohndal and Uriagereka rightly locate within the overall Principles and Parameters paradigm. The authors review Chomsky’s original arguments for the elimination of D- and S-structure and some conceptual considerations underlying the MP, followed by a discussion of the development of Bare Phrase Structure and economy conditions in syntactic theory.

Chapter 26, “Head-driven Phrase-structure Grammar” by Felix Bildhauer, is a detailed introduction to the HPSG framework. After a brief discussion of the historical development of central tenets of the theory (e.g. feature structures and constraints), the chapter discusses HPSG modeling of predicates, arguments and adjuncts and a number of central phenomena (such as passivization and extraction). Illustrative representations are used throughout. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of current debates and concerns of computational implementation.

Chapter 27, “Lexical-functional Grammar” by George Aaron Broadwell, introduces the central assumptions, terminology and notational conventions of LFG by comparing a single sentence in two languages, Warlpiri (free word order) and English (restricted word order). Starting from the basic strata of c-structure and f-structure and correspondence rules, the chapter then goes on to illustrate the basic principles of Consistency, Completeness, and Coherence. Phenomena discussed include reflexive binding (which is taken to reflect a Relational Hierarchy), agreement, and (one type of) movement.

Chapter 28, “Role and Reference Grammar” by Robert D. Van Valin, Jr., explores the particular conception of layered clause structure in RRG, which divides a clause into nucleus, core, and periphery. Modifiers (“operators”; e.g. aspect marking, modals, evidentials) of each layer are introduced and illustrated, and it is shown how semantic representations are built around the logical structure of the predicate. The remainder of the chapter discusses the representation of information structure in RRG and its basic assumptions concerning semantics-syntax linking.

Chapter 29, “Dependency Grammar” by Timothy Osborne, sketches the basics of grammatical systems in which the representation of dependencies takes priority over the representation of constituency. Osborne discusses how dependency can be represented formally and the nature of semantic dependencies (predicate-argument) as opposed to morphological dependencies (agreement). In connection with displacement giving rise to discontinuous constituents, Osborne suggests to amend DG with the adjunction-like operation of “rising.” The last part of the chapter argues that CATENAE – hierarchically but not necessarily linearly continuous configurations – are the basic units of syntax, as manifest in (e.g.) particle-verb constructions and idioms.

Chapter 30, “Morphosyntax in Functional Discourse Grammar” by J. Lachlan Mackenzie, sketches the fundamentals of FDG, a “functionally and typologically oriented theory” (627) in which syntax takes a backseat compared to its central role in more formal frameworks. In fact, fragmentary expressions like “hey you” are taken to bypass syntax altogether, as pure discourse objects. The bulk of the chapter focuses on the morphosyntactic component of FDG, which constructs Linguistic Expressions out of morphological and phrasal units, and how mapping principles mediate between the four levels of representation assumed by the framework.

Chapter 31, “Construction Grammar” by Seizi Iwata, surveys developments in this framework, which takes as its starting point Goldberg’s radical claim that “a grammar consists of constructions and constructions alone” (651), and defends the idea that “constructions serve as very convenient tools for describing linguistic facts as they are” (666). The discussion focuses on the flexibility exhibited by verbs capable of occurring in a variety of non-compositional contexts; various case studies lead up to the claim that different types of constructions exist, with different levels of granularity. Central concepts such as fusion and inheritance are introduced briefly.

Chapter 32, “Categorial Grammar” by Mark Steedman, presents a largely technical and abstract summary of the main tenets of frameworks employing grammars of this class, whose origins Steedman traces back to the works of Frege and Montague. Among other things, the chapter discusses basic operations such as functional application, the incorporation of further operations in Combinatory CG, formal properties of CGs, the syntax-semantics interface and the grammar-performance connection. The empirical phenomena discussed include right-node raising, extraction, and coordination.


There is no shortage of more or less recent “handbooks” in syntactic theory (e.g. Baltin and Collins 2000, Everaert et al. 2005, Boeckx 2011, Den Dikken 2013, Luraghi and Parodi 2013, Kiss and Alexiadou 2015). The ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF SYNTAX (RHS) takes a somewhat broader approach than most of these, in that syntactic phenomena, syntactic interfaces, and even entire analytical frameworks are represented. The editors are to be applauded for minimizing overlap between the individual chapters, although some redundancy is unavoidable (unobjectionable) in a volume of such broad scope (e.g. Mateu’s survey of argument structure and Ackema’s discussion of the syntax-lexicon interface necessarily cover some of the same ground). The list of contributors commendably includes a number of young researchers alongside established names – a deliberate decision on the part of the editors, as they state in their introduction to the volume.

Many contributions to RHS assume a historical perspective on the phenomenon under discussion, which is highly conducive to an understanding of the intellectual trajectory of ideas; Culicover’s decidedly historical chapter stands out as a particularly lucid if condensed summary of major themes and shifts in 60 years of research in GG. The “Further Reading” section at the end of each chapter is likewise a welcome feature, and should prove helpful especially to students using this book as a reference.

As is to be expected of an extensive volume of this kind, the individual contributions vary in both length and quality. Some chapters are considerably more extensive than others, both in content and sheer page length (chapters range from 11 to 25 substantive pages); and some of the shorter ones (e.g. those by Murasugi and Schreiner) are essentially annotated bibliographies, presenting little to no data. As such they may still be helpful to the experienced researcher, but their value to (graduate or advanced undergraduate) students is limited. The reduced format inevitably makes for a dense read in some cases (especially when an entire framework is presented, as in Van Valin’s and Steedman’s 20-page expositions of RRG and CG, respectively), and unfortunately led some authors (e.g., Yoshida et al. and Sato and Goto, and especially Iwata) to focus very narrowly on particular phenomena with little room for reflection on more general questions and ramifications.

On the other hand, some chapters are outstanding examples of lucid and concise summaries striking just the right balance between data presentation and theoretical discussion. I would highlight in this regard Ernst’s comparison of the two major approaches to the syntax of adverbs, Barrie and Mathieu’s presentation of the core problems in the theory of Head Movement, Truswell’s thorough examination of Binding Theory, Siddiqi’s very balanced presentation of different views of the syntax-morphology relation, and Bildhauer’s detailed yet very clear summary of the HPSG framework – all of these should serve as examples to future editors and authors of comparable volumes/chapters. In fact, most contributions in Parts I-IV of RHS are solid and accessible summaries of central research themes that will make this collection a go-to resource for both students and researchers.

A few papers stand out as somewhat self-opinionated. For instance, Hornstein and Nunes’ chapter is an unabashed argument in favor of their own analysis of Control as A-movement (to their credit, the authors state their bias clearly at the outset of the chapter); Haspelmath’s discussion of different research traditions in comparative syntax hardly conceals his animosity towards (what he calls) “restrictivist” approaches, to which he imputes various assumptions without providing supporting references; and Tallerman’s chapter, while reflecting a variety of views, ends up advocating a gradualist view of language evolution, despite the fact that her discussion hardly establishes that tales of “proto-language” are anything more than just-so stories. To be sure, these chapters are valuable on their own terms, but some readers might question the appropriateness of a handbook as a venue for opinion pieces of this kind.

That said, RHS is overall a stellar addition to the growing body of survey literature that deserves a special slot on every syntactician’s book shelf, and is sure to leave its mark on many future syntax syllabi. In the light of the fundamental gaps and controversies coming to the fore in almost every chapter, the editors’ opening statement that “Our understanding of the complex nature of the relationships between words and among phrases has increased dramatically [since the mid 1950s]” (xvii) appears equally optimistic and provocative.


Baltin, M. and C. Collins (eds). 2000. THE HANDBOOK OF CONTEMPORARY SYNTACTIC THEORY. Oxford: Blackwell.

Boeckx, C. (ed). 2011. THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF LINGUISTIC MINIMALISM. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Den Dikken, M. (ed). 2013. THE CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK OF GENERATIVE SYNTAX. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Everaert, M., H. van Riemsdijk, R. Goedemans and B. Hollebrandse (eds). 2005. THE BLACKWELL COMPANION TO SYNTAX. Oxford: Blackwell, 5 volumes.

Kiss, T. and A. Alexiadou (eds). 2015. SYNTAX – THEORY AND ANALYSIS. AN INTERNATIONAL HANDBOOK. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter Mouton. 3 volumes.

Luraghi, S. and C. Parodi (eds). 2013. THE BLOOMSBURY COMPANION TO SYNTAX. New York: Bloomsbury.
I'm a Humboldt Post-doc Fellow at Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany and, as of July 1, an Assistant Professor of Syntax at the University of Ottawa, Canada. My research interests include syntactic displacement, ellipsis, and the nature of words.

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