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Review of  Words, Grammar, Text

Reviewer: Vaughan Mak
Book Title: Words, Grammar, Text
Book Author: Rosamund Moon
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Linguistic Theories
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.676

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EDITOR: Moon, Rosamund
TITLE: Words, Grammar, Text
SUBTITLE: Revisiting the work of John Sinclair
SERIES TITLE: Benjamins Current Topics 18
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2009

Vaughan Mak, College of International Education, Hong Kong Baptist University


This book is a collection of papers published earlier as a special issue of
International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 12:2 (2007). It puts together the
views of six scholars on Sinclair's unique contribution to key areas of corpus
linguistic research and thus provides an overview of the principal landmarks in
his journey towards a lexico-grammatical theory of language. The book contains a
total of six papers.

The first paper by Rosamund Moon takes us back to where the Cobuild project
first started in the 1980s, traces how the first corpus-based dictionary came
into being, and evaluates the tremendous impact it had and still has on
dictionary-making, thanks to Sinclair's revolutionary ideas at the time. Moon
reminds us that many of the features we take for granted in modern dictionaries
in fact represent the fruits of Sinclair's vision, which was not necessarily
shared by many of his contemporaries. One primary aspect of such vision is the
insistence on the use of corpus in understanding how language works, which, over
the last few decades, has literally changed the landscape of not only
dictionary-making itself but also linguistic study at large. Indeed,
lexicography now concerns itself with much more than making a dictionary; it has
become ''a respectable part of linguistics (albeit applied)'' and is ''daily
discovering new facts about words'' (19).

Moon also draws our attention to several other innovative features of the
Cobuild dictionary. An important one is the idea of phraseology - that meaning
lies not so much in a word as in the sequence it often appears in. Therefore,
Cobuild defines the meaning of a word by stating the specific context and word
partnership that typically give rise to that meaning, a practice which is very
different from what most traditional dictionaries do. More importantly, such a
practice means a new language of definition, which turns out to be extremely
influential on the way other dictionaries handle their word entries. Other
aspects of dictionary-making on which Cobuild has a great influence include
typography, the use of examples, and the treatment of common words.

In the second paper, Geoff Barnbrook succinctly explains and discusses the
fruitfulness of two linguistic principles put forward by Sinclair: the idiom
principle and the open-choice principle. Despite the predominant influence of
the generative-transformational approach to language of his time, Sinclair had
the shrewdness to argue for an alternative view that portrays a closer
approximation to reality: that is, people produce language not primarily by
filling out slots prescribed by sentence rules, but rather by first stringing
pre-constructed units together to form a macro-structure, hence the so-called
idiom principle. Barnbrook rewords Sinclair's idea by stating that ''these
semi-preconstructed phrases then constitute single choices, and do not benefit
from further grammatical analysis'' (24). When the macro-structure for expressing
a certain idea is in place, the open-choice principle then comes into play and
completes the structure with the remaining propositional and grammatical details.

The idiom principle hinges on a key concept propounded by Sinclair -
collocation. Barnbrook briefly examines how the concept bears on our approach to
grammar, in that verb meanings are to be represented in different verb patterns
as exemplified in different collocational strings (see e.g. Francis, Hunston &
Manning 1996; Hunston & Francis 2000). On the other hand, many English words are
such frequent collocates with other words that they become somewhat
de-lexicalized, and it would only make sense to understand them as part of a
preconstructed unit rather than a separate lexical item. Barnbrook uses the word
''back'' as an example to show how its meaning and use have become integral to
most of the frequent collocations it forms with other lexical items.

Charles Owen's paper, the third in the collection, takes Sinclair's
lexico-grammatical view of language deeper into linguistics proper. He
elaborates on one of Sinclair's many challenges against traditional grammar -
does it make sense for us to continue treating ''of'' as a preposition? Through a
series of methodical analyses, Owen justifies Sinclair's view that an of-phrase
is far more complex than a mere post-modifying adjunct, as many grammarians have
preferred to treat it. Sinclair argues that in a phrase such as ''the sound of
his feet'', it is the ''feet'' that the phrase is really about, not the ''sound'', so
it is counter-intuitive to say that the ''feet'' modifies the ''sound''. Moreover,
there are phrases where the noun groups involved seem to share equal importance
- which Sinclair calls ''double-headedness'' - as in the example of ''enthusiastic
collaboration of the auctioneers''. If analyses like these sound slightly too
hard to grasp, Owen has simpler ones which are just as effective in getting
Sinclair's point across. For example, noun groups such as ''a couple of weeks''
and ''a bottle of champagne'' clearly demonstrate that of-phrases do not
necessarily modify what is commonly conceived of as head nouns (in this case,
''couple'' and ''bottle'').

Owen's paper consists mainly of linguistic analyses, but he also offers critical
evaluation of Sinclair's approach. For one thing, Owen expresses his
reservations about Sinclair's insistence on the use of corpus examples as data
and evidence. He argues that his native intuition has enabled him to come up
with hypotheses which are in line with, if not exactly the same as, the findings
borne out by corpus techniques. Therefore, he maintains that ''the ostensible
chief objection to cognitive models, which is that evidence from introspection
is too unreliable, is debatable in terms of both the extent of that
unreliability and its true theoretical significance'' (56).

In the fourth paper of the collection, Wolfgang Teubert continues Owen's line of
argument and offers his own version of analysis of the of-phrase, using the
specific example of ''hatred''. While agreeing that it is generally more fruitful
to understand meaning by way of structural patterns rather than individual
words, Teubert argues that in dividing patterns into groups, pattern grammar
along Sinclairian lines seems unable to provide a coherent explanation for the
differences between the groups, even when they are all formed around the same
lexical item. For example, under pattern grammar, ''hatred'' is found in five
groups involving different patterns such as ''hatred of'', ''hatred for'' and
''hatred towards'', but there is no discussion of their similarity, nor is there
an explanation for the difference in meaning in patterns such as that between
''their hatred of the French colonials'' (in which case the French colonials are
the object of hatred) and ''hatred of the French colonialists for the local
population'' (in which case the local population is the object of hatred).
Something like that ''cannot be discussed without an appropriate grammatical
theory'' (67), Teubert argues, and in his paper he attempts to propose a theory
of that nature, which he calls ''dependency/valency grammar''.

The bulk of Teubert's paper is therefore a concentrated exposition of his
valency theory of grammar, premised on two key operational concepts known as
complement and adjunct. Despite this apparent simplicity, the theory shares
certain conceptual similarities with Latin grammar and employs some of its
terminology, which makes the theory slightly less accessible than it could be.

Susan Hunston writes the fifth paper, where she examines the concept of semantic
prosody in greater depth. Semantic prosody, as defined by Louw (1993), is ''the
spreading of connotational colouring beyond single-word boundaries'' (157). The
first aspect of semantic prosody under examination is its relationship with
discourse function. Hunston maintains, for example, that the negative
connotation of ''cause'' still holds even though this semantic prosody is not
borne out in the corpus of scientific, research-type of writing. She explains
that it is because the negative connotation pertains to the discourse of
evaluation by human beings, and human agents do not usually feature in scholarly
writing such as scientific research. However, Hunston does agree that
attitudinal meaning should not be taken too simplistically. She emphasizes
Sinclair's view that semantic prosody is best seen in a ''unit of meaning''
involving more than one lexical element, such as the sequence ''inability +
negative + budge + (something)'', used to express the idea of attempting
something difficult or important in vain.

Meanwhile, Hunston reminds us that in making claims about semantic prosody, it
is important to examine the wider co-text and not just the immediate context of
the lexical item(s). She uses ''to the point of'' as an example, which she argues
has a negative connotation. She points out that though there are plenty of
corpus examples where the phraseology is in fact followed by a positive word
such as ''gentleness'' and ''reverential'', a closer look at the wider co-text
reveals that the writer using the phraseology intends a negative evaluation,
''and this overrides the usual meaning of other words in the immediate
environment of the phrase'' (97). She also mentions that sometimes semantic
prosody only obtains in certain register-specific corpora. For example, the
phrase ''seems to think'' has a predominantly negative semantic prosody in a
conflict corpus of academic writing.

The last paper in the book is written by Michael Toolan. It is a short piece
that addresses Sinclair's model of language from the interpretive rather than
the productive end. Contrary to the emphasis of most theories of discourse
comprehension, Sinclair contends that it is projection about what is to come
that really matters, not reference to what has been said before in a text. In
other words, Sinclair argues that every sentence is new and constitutes a
context in its own right. This idea focuses more on the regularity of text
structure and hence its predictability. In Toolan's view, Sinclair's idea to
''trust the text'' points to the inherent ability of texts ''to lead us towards
their ends, without disruptions, re-readings, hidden meanings, and so on''; in
fact, ''the collocational and prospective evidence (of which there is no
shortage) suggests that texts are smoothly progressing discourses'' (122).


Though sharing essentially the same goal to highlight Sinclair's unique
contribution to linguistic studies, this collection of papers nevertheless
represents a rather peculiar mix. While the issues addressed in the three papers
by Moon, Barnbrook, and Hunston are methodically developed at a moderate level
of complexity and are therefore highly accessible, the other three papers are
considerably less so. Owen's and Teubert's papers demand a firmer grasp of
grammatical analysis, while Toolan's is more of a discussion along
epistemological lines. In particular, Teubert's proposed ''dependency/valency
grammar'' appears inevitably abstruse, primarily because he does not seem to have
clearly defined and distinguished the terms ''dependency'' and ''valency''. Though
the theory claims to ''distinguish what is part of general grammar from the local
grammar of a word or a (more or less) fixed expression'' (72), Teubert has not
done this claim enough justice, not least because it is hard to expound on a
grammatical theory - even just its very essence -- within the span of 10 pages
or so. His conclusion of the paper by drawing a parallel with Sinclair's latest
constructs such as ''Linear Unit Grammar'' and ''endocentric/exocentric
constructions'' does little to help by way of clarification.

As a result, the last three papers in the collection may pose problems to
readers who are relatively new to corpus linguistics. Even so, students or
linguists of a more applied inclination may find it rewarding to read Moon's,
Hunston's and Owen's papers. Moon puts in nice perspective the basic tenets of
Sinclair's approach to lexicography, so her paper should be of great value to
those interested in the rationales behind which major dictionaries, and to a
lesser extent the study of word meaning in general, have evolved to their
present state of development. Hunston's paper yet again puts Sinclair's approach
into practice, demonstrating how corpora keep yielding new discoveries in the
meaning of words and phrases, ranging from the mundane (such as ''seems to
think'') to the deceptively simple (such as ''to the point of''). Owen takes the
approach further in depth and examines how the concept of phraseology can be
built into the grammatical explanation of the elusive nominal structure, ''N1 +
of + N2''. His proposal of a ''gradience analysis of headedness'' will not only
appeal to corpus linguists but should also inspire ELT practitioners in favour
of a lexical approach to teaching - in this case the teaching of ''of-phrases'' as
pre-fabricated chunks organized around various semantic domains.

Those looking for a more balanced and comprehensive discussion of Sinclair's
lexicocentric approach to language might find Hunston (2002) more helpful. On
the other hand, Partington (1998) contains good demonstrations of how corpus
linguistic techniques can bring forth insights into word meanings that may not
always be accessible to native intuitions.


Francis, G., Hunston, S. & Manning, E. (1996). Collins COBUILD Grammar Patterns
1: Verbs. London: HarperCollins.

Hunston, S. (2002). Corpora in Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Hunston, S. & Francis, G. (2000). Pattern Grammar: A Corpus-driven Approach to
the Lexical Grammar of English (Studies in Corpus Linguistics 4). Amsterdam:
John Benjamins.

Louw, B. (1993). Irony in the text or insincerity in the writer? – The
diagnostic potential
of semantic prosodies. In M. Baker, G. Francis, & E. Tognini-Bonelli (Eds.),
Text and
technology: In honour of John Sinclair (pp. 157-176). Amsterdam and Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.

Partington, A. (1998). Patterns and Meanings. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Vaughan Mak is a Senior Lecturer at the College of International Education under Hong Kong Baptist University. He is currently teaching English and English Literature courses to pre-college students. He is interested in research on corpus linguistics and corpus-driven grammar, pragmatics, text and discourse analysis, and stylistics. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the pragmatics and phraseology of the introductory-it construction.