LINGUIST List 14.2955

Wed Oct 29 2003

Review: Syntax, Pragmatics: Chen (2003)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in.

If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  • Mohammad Rasekh Mahand, English Inversion: A Ground-before-Figure Construction

    Message 1: English Inversion: A Ground-before-Figure Construction

    Date: Wed, 29 Oct 2003 18:10:07 +0000
    From: Mohammad Rasekh Mahand <>
    Subject: English Inversion: A Ground-before-Figure Construction

    Chen, Rong (2003) English Inversion: A Ground-before-Figure Construction, Mouton de Gruyter, Cognitive Linguistics Research.

    Announced at

    Mohammad Rasekh Mahand, Linguistics Department, Bu-Ali Sina University, Hamadan, Iran.


    The book tries to analysis English Inversion in the light of Cognitive Linguistics framework. The cognitive model presented is Ground- before - Figure (GbF) model, which asserts that sometimes it is cognitively efficient to present ground before a figure. Its author, Rong Chen , is a member of the faculty at California State University, San Bernardino.


    The book under review is divided into five chapters. The first chapter discusses some preliminaries of inversion. It studies some peculiarities on inversion, some previous research, relevant tenets of cognitive linguistics and some other issues.

    The writer says that the preverbal constituent of the inversion is the ground, and the post-verbal constituent is the figure. By such a linear order, inversion directs the hearer's attention to the ground first, in which the hearer finds a landmark established in the previous text or in the discourse context. When the figure eventually appears, it is placed in the focus of attention of the hearer. This cognitive analysis tries to provide a basis for a unified account of the behaviors of inversion in its semantics, syntax, phonology as well as pragmatics. Section one of the first chapter reviews some issues of inversion. Inversion has different types, but the subject of this book is the analysis of full-verb inversion only. Sentence (1) is an example of this: 1. On my left was Tom Lopez.

    Full- verb inversion has two main characteristics: 1) a constituent of the predicate, which can be of any grammatical category, is placed pre-verbally, 2)the subject nominal is placed post-verbally. Inversion as a marked construction, displays a number of idiosyncratic features. The first feature is called, polarity constraint. Inversion does not allow negation of its verb. (See example 2) 2. *On my left wasn't Tom Lopez.

    The second feature is called transitivity constraint; simple tense transitive verbs cannot occur in inversion. (See example 3) 3.*Through the revolving door pushed Tom

    The writer has also talked about auxiliary constraint; the question whether the inverted verb can take complex auxiliaries, and embeddedness constraint. He has addressed some issues of semantic, phonological, and pragmatic constraints.

    In reviewing the earlier works on inversion, the writer discusses syntactic and functional accounts. Birner (1996) discusses inversion in the light of information-packaging and argues that ''inversion serves an information-packaging function, linking relatively unfamiliar information to the prior context via the clause-initial placement of information which is relatively familiar'' (Birner 1996:77). After discussing Birner's views, the writer argues that her account is flawed and the counterexamples in her data threaten the integrity of the structure of the account as a whole. In section three of the first chapter, the writer introduces some of the basic tenets of cognitive linguistics which are: 1) linguistic categories as radial than discrete, 2) constructions as instantiations of cognition and 3) meaning as a result of interaction among semantics, phonology, syntax and pragmatics.

    Chapter two of the book discusses inversion as GbF instantiation. The writer defines figure as the part of a differentiated visual field which 'stands out distinctively' from other parts in that field. Ground refers to these 'other parts'. In an uninverted sentence the ground is presented before the figure. The GbF model is argued to have the following elements: 1. Basics: the gestalt of figure and ground. 2. Conditions: A. Ground is anchorable. B.Figure is not known to the hearer as present in the ground. 3. Purposes: A. To anchor the ground with a landmark known to the hearer, which is often done for the purpose of B. Helping the hearer to locate the figure and/or drawing her attention to it. 4. Results: Increased focus of attention on figure and ground.

    In the rest of this chapter, the writer introduces different types of inversion: Location-Be, Path-Verb (motion), and Non-Spatial-Be. The different versions of theses prototypes are also discussed. The phonology of inversion, especially its relation to sentence stress and intonation, is also discussed. The writer argues that there must be at last one stressed word in preverbal and one stressed word in post-verbal position. The most fundamental difference between the GbF model and the information packaging account of inversion is that the latter analyzes the construction only at the textual level, it is not able to provide answers to a host of problems that the construction poses at other levels of language. The GbF model provides a coherent cognitive basis to address all these problems.

    Chapter three has discussed five syntactic constraints on inversion: the polarity constraint, the transitivity constraint, the embeddedness constraint, the auxiliary constraint and the weight constraint. The writer first discusses the various observable, surface facts of each constraint, then relates these facts to the GbF model and argues that the former are explainable in terms of the latter.

    In chapter four, the writer discusses the use of inversion in three basic types of discourse. It is argued that in description, the prototype of inversion- the Location-Be type is used. In narration, both the Location-Be type and the Path-Verb (motion) types are used. In exposition, the Non-Spatial-Be type is used. These different forms of inversion are not treated separate from each other. The specific function of inversion depends on the purpose of the speaker engaged in a particular kind of discourse.

    Chapter five of the book is the conclusion. The writer summarizes the previous chapters and also gives the GbF representation in some other languages.


    The volume under review is a complete study of inversion in English from cognitive linguistics point of view. The number of issues covered in this study is considerable. Discussing the inversion from cognitive point of view is not something which is previously talked about, and the book is a milestone from this perspective. One of the main points of the book is providing several real life examples for each discussion, which also helps the reader to grasp the theoretical ideas mentioned in the book. However, there is one point I like to mention. In the last chapter of the book, when the writer is giving examples of inversion in some languages other than English, he gives some examples of inversion in Persian (taken from Birner and Mahootian 1996). The point which is neglected by these authors, as well as Chen, is that Persian is a free word order language and ''consequently there is perhaps no inversion to speak of these languages''. The examples sited from Persian are not inline with the definition of inversion given in the book and they are not constrained with syntactic constraints like polarity and transitivity constraints. Indeed, these sentences are examples of scrambling in Persian (Karimi 2003). The book is highly recommended for those interested in syntax-pragmatics interface. Also the data included in the book can provide authentic language data accessible to other researchers.


    Birner, B. and Sh. Mahootian (1996) Functional constraints on inversion in English and Farsi. Language Sciences 18.1-2:127-138.

    Karimi, Simin (ed.) (2003) Word Order and Scrambling. Blackwell Publishers.


    Mohammad Rasekh Mahand is a member of Linguistics Department at Bu-Ali Sina Universty, Hamadan, Iran. His research interests include syntax, syntax-pragmatics interface and typology.