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Review of  An Introduction to Syntax

Reviewer: Joybrato Mukherjee
Book Title: An Introduction to Syntax
Book Author: Robert D.
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Issue Number: 12.2163

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Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (2001) An Introduction to
Syntax. Cambridge University Press, xvi+239 pp.,
$59.95, ISBN: 0-521-63199-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by Joybrato Mukherjee, University of Bonn

It is always a pleasure to see a distinguished scholar
provide an introductory textbook on different approaches to
his/her linguistic field of expertise. In the following
synopsis, it will be shown that van Valin offers a very
useful and comprehensive overview as far as generative and
related approaches to syntax are concerned from a cross-
linguistic and contrastive perspective. In this regard, the
present work has a tremendous depth and breadth of
coverage. Unfortunately, though, some important
contributions to syntactic analysis, which (given the title
of the book) one might have expected to be outlined as
well, are only mentioned in passing or not tackled at all.
This is one of the two minor weak points of the book which
will be taken up in the final critical evaluation, the
other one being the issue of data and evidence.


The organisation of the book is as follows. Chapter 1
introduces basic aspects of syntactic structure (e.g.
grammatical relations and lexical categories) and
morphological structure (e.g. phonological and
morphological conditioning). The subsequent chapters delve
more closely into different perspectives on syntactic
structures, namely grammatical relations (chapter 2),
dependency relations (chapter 3) and constituent structure
(chapter 4). Chapter 5 describes the interrelationship
between grammar and lexicon (e.g. by discussing features of
subcategorisation). Finally, chapter 6 is intended to
sketch the scope and tenets of different theories of
syntax. Each chapter is followed by a list of suggested
readings and exercises. The book is complemented with a
reference section, a language and a subject index.

Given the fact that the author is a leading proponent of
Role and Reference Grammar, it is not surprising that
examples from a wide range of different languages are used
throughout the book. In fact, the language index lists
sixty languages. Thus, it is not the in-depth analysis of a
particular language but the introduction to the versatility
of syntactic structures across languages that lies at the
heart of the present work. For example, the author makes it
clear that what is codified by means of a bound morpheme in
one language (e.g. 'vide-' in Russian) may be a free
morpheme in another (e.g. 'see' in English). Within this
typologically-oriented framework, the opening chapter is a
very plausible introduction to general syntactic concepts
such as phrase types, lexical categories and subcategories
(and their morphosyntactic definition). Also, the basic
morphological terminology (e.g. kinds of morphemes) is
sketched out.

Although chapter 2 is entitled 'grammatical relations', it
not only deals with grammar but at least to the same extent
with semantics. In particular, van Valin explains the
complex relationship between grammatical relations and
semantic roles. Largely capitalising on Fillmore's
construction grammar with its focus on argument structures
and the recent seminal work by Goldberg (1995), verb-
specific semantic roles (e.g. 'giver') are mapped onto
thematic roles (e.g. 'agent'), which are then subsumed into
two so-called 'semantic macroroles' (i.e. 'actor' vs.
'undergoer'). These increasingly generalised semantic
categories can all be found in subject-position. Apart from
the subject, the author also goes into details about the
properties of direct and indirect objects across languages.
The cross-linguistic identification and comparison of
grammatical relations is taken as the foundation on the
basis of which a universal grammar can be posited and
described. Some of the numerous topics covered are the
prevalent case patterns in human languages (i.e.
nominative-accusative and ergative-absolutive), languages
without case-marking (e.g. Cantonese) and particular
constructions (e.g. the English raising-construction). Of
particular interest are the concluding remarks on
completely different systems of grammatical relations as
can be found, for example, in Tagalog.

Chapter 3 is devoted to dependency relations, which may be
bilateral, unilateral or coordinate in nature. Special
emphasis is placed on valency grammar and the need for a
distinction between semantic and syntactic valency and
between obligatory and optional syntactic arguments. For
example, the obligatory subject in the active voice turns
into an optional adjunct in the passive construction,
introduced, for example, by 'by' in English and 'ni' in
Japanese. From a typological perspective, many languages
can in general be grouped into either the dependent-marking
type (e.g. English) or the head-marking type in which the
verb may be so heavily marked that it might form a complete
sentence (e.g. in the Lakhota version of English 'I heard
them'). The remainder of this chapter deals with different
formal notations of dependency-grammatical syntactic

The focus of chapter 4 is on the hierarchical organisation
of syntactic structures, i.e. constituent structure. Here,
basic methods (e.g. immediate constituent analysis, tests
for constituency) and technical terms (e.g. branching,
dominance) are explained and exemplified. A substantial
part of this chapter gets down to the nitty-gritty of the
generative X-bar framework and its application to sentences
from different languages. Once again, the issue of
universality (and similarity) of syntactic structures
merits particular attention. For example, it turns out that
the verb phrase cannot be universal because it is not found
in so-called 'non-configurational languages' such as
Lakhota. After analysing some complex sentences, the author
concludes this chapter by relating grammatical relations to
constituent-structure terms, which he takes to be different
descriptions of the same grammatical phenomenon ('weak
equivalence') although different structural analyses of the
phenomenon at hand are offered.

In describing the relevance of the lexicon to the level of
syntax, chapter 5 centres around phrase-structure (PS)
rules in X-bar theory, syntactic subcategorisation
information stored in individual lexical entries (e.g. the
fact that the English verb 'put' requires a noun phrase and
a prepositional phrase) and relational-dependency (RD)
rules. Unlike PS-rules, RD-rules are shown to include three
aspects: the head, the number and kind of dependents and
the grammatical relation between the head and its
dependent(s). Thus, the relational subcategorisation frame
for 'put' is given as 'put (N-SUBJ N-DOBJ P-OBL)' with noun
phrases in subject and direct-object position and a
prepositional phrase in oblique-object position. The
chapter nicely illustrates the way in which different
models account for the specification of syntactic
structures with which particular lexical entries are

The final chapter compares the foundations and analytical
tools of different theories of syntax. In particular, van
Valin discusses Relational Grammar (RelG), Lexical-
Functional Grammar (LFG), the Government-and-Binding
approach (GB) and Role and Reference Grammar (RRG). The
differences between the four frameworks are illustrated,
among others, with sample analyses of the active-passive
alternation and the so-called dative shift. For example,
the dative shift is captured by a syntactic rule in RelG
but explained in terms of a lexical rule in LFG. The
summary of this chapter offers a good visualisation of the
historical development of the four theories under
discussion, all of which go back to transformational
grammar in the last resort. Some other syntactic theories
are briefly mentioned at the end of the chapter, including
non-generative frameworks such as cognitive grammar and
functional grammar.

Critical evaluation

With regard to generative theories and grammars rooted in
generative grammar, the book under review is without any
doubt a highly valuable and perceptive introductory
textbook. Basic concepts are firmly established, and the
abundance of examples taken from many languages as well as
their careful and considered syntactic analysis illustrate
the issues at hand. As has been pointed out in the
synopsis, a major strength of this textbook lies in the
integration of essential semantic categories into the
depiction of syntactic structures across languages (whose
description I am largely unable to evaluate whenever it
comes to examples obtained from languages other than Dutch,
English, French, German, Hindi and Latin). The book is well
written and well produced with virtually no remaining typos
and other infelicities. Also, the suggestions for further
reading and the exercises at the end of each chapter add to
the reader-friendly audience design of the book. I am
looking forward to using substantial parts of the book in
those sessions of my syntax courses which are devoted to
the theories discussed by van Valin.

As a linguist and syntactician with no particular
affiliation to the theories of syntax on which van Valin
primarily draws, I would like to take a liberty in
commenting on two aspects of the book which, in my view,
are two shortcomings. First, it is fair enough to confine
oneself to those syntactic theories which the author has
focused on and to emphasise the typological and cross-
linguistic point of view. However, a book whose purpose is
described as "teaching you the techniques that the
practitioners of linguistic science use to reveal and
understand the structure of human languages" (p. xiii)
would definitely profit, to say the least, from a
discussion of corpus-linguistic research and concepts which
have evolved from the careful analysis of large amounts of
authentic data (e.g. colligations). In particular, I am
thinking here of the work done so far on the lexicogrammar
of English (cf. e.g. Biber et al.'s (1999) corpus-based
grammar and Hunston and Francis's (2000) innovative pattern
grammar approach) and French (cf. e.g. Gross 1993). A
textbook which brings to the fore the interrelationship of
syntax and semantics should, in my view, not ignore the
fact that semantics is linked to the context of language
use as attested, for example, in corpora. Since language
use and linguistic structure are intricately interwoven, a
second critical remark is in order. Van Valin exclusively
draws on isolated (and probably invented) sentences and
their syntactic analysis as well as on grammaticality
judgements (of unidentified native speakers, I assume). The
likelihood and the context of the occurrence of the data
are not taken into account. A distinction between spoken
and written syntax (cf. Miller/Weinert 1998) is not made.
Thus, the status of the data used by van Valin as well as
the kind of evidence they provide remain unclear. It is a
pity that the theoretical issue of syntactic data and
linguistic evidence is not addressed.

In reviewing Elly van Gelderen's generative study on verbal
agreement, Manfred Markus (2001) encounters the same problem
because the author does not provide for any corpus
evidence. However, he admits that "(p)erhaps this is like
asking a dog to miaow" (Markus 2001: 188). Taking up this
metaphor, the book under review is most certainly a very
good introduction to the 'dog's side' of syntax. In order
to explore the 'cat's side', one would have to read other
introductory textbooks.


Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan
Conrad & Edward Finegan (1999): Longman Grammar of Spoken
and Written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Goldberg, Adele E. (1995): Constructions: A Construction
Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

Gross, Maurice (1993): "Local grammars and their
representation by finite automata." In: Data, Description,
Discourse: Papers on the English Language in Honour of John
Sinclair, ed. Michael Hoey. London: HarperCollins. 26-38.

Hunston, Susan & Gill Francis (2000): Pattern Grammar: A
Corpus-driven Approach to the Lexical Grammar of English.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Markus, Manfred (2001): "Review of Elly van Gelderen,
Verbal agreement and the grammar behind its 'breakdown':
minimalist feature checking (T�bingen: Niemeyer, 1997)",
Anglistik 12 (1), 185-188.

Miller, Jim & Regina Weinert (1998): Spontaneous Spoken
Language: Syntax and Discourse. Oxford: Clarendon.

Biographical note

Joybrato Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Modern
English Linguistics at the English Department of the
University of Bonn in Germany. His research interests
include corpus linguistics, EFL teaching, intonation,
stylistics, syntax and textlinguistics. He is the author of
'Form and Function of Parasyntactic Presentation
Structures' (2001), published by Rodopi Editions. At
present, he is working on a corpus-based study of English
ditransitive verbs and a textbook on the relevance of
corpus linguistics to EFL teaching.


Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521635667
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
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Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521631998
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Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0521635667
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 256
Prices: U.S. $ 24.00