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Review of  Syntax: Structure, Meaning, and Function

Reviewer: Radu Daniliuc
Book Title: Syntax: Structure, Meaning, and Function
Book Author: Robert D. Randy J. LaPolla
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 11.485

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[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]