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Review of  Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar

Reviewer: Xie Chaoqun
Book Title: Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar
Book Author: John R. Taylor
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 12.1731

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Taylor, John R. (2001) Possessives in English: An Exploration in
Cognitive Grammar, New York: Oxford University Press, xii+368
pp. ISBN 0-19-829982-6 (pbk). $ 35.00

Reviewed by: Chaoqun Xie, Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian
Teachers University, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

Linguist List book announcement at

COGNITIVE GRAMMAR serves as a no-small contribution to
the study of the English possessive and it is, I believe, destined to
become one of the keystone texts of this specific school of
theorization and research. As clearly stated at the very beginning
of this volume, this book is about "a single morpheme in English
and the constitutions in which it occurs" (p. 1) embedded in the
theory of Cognitive Grammar developed by Ronald Langacker
and others. This book has two themes. One is to argue that the
cognitive approach to the English possessive "is able to offer a
more comprehensive and more insightful account of the data than
some other theories, especially those associated with Chomskyan
generative grammar" (p. 3). The second one is to provide "a
critical examination of the theoretical bases of these approaches,
and their evaluation especially in the light of their treatment of
possessives" (p. 3). This remarkable monograph would be of
great value to anyone interested in cognitive linguistics, and
cognitive grammar in particular. The book consists of thirteen
chapters, the last of which is followed by an extensive list of
references and an index of names and a subject index. In what
follows I provide a brief summary of each of the chapters.

Chapter 1, "Preliminaries" (pp. 1-20), provides an answer to this
question: why devote a whole book to the English possessive
morpheme, the one that attaches to the ends of noun phrases to
give the forms John's the city's, the children's and the like? The
author's answer is that in spite of their seemingly transparent
nature, possessives do present a number of rather special
challenges, and raise a number of intriguing problems touching on
the very basis of linguistic theory. Much ink in this chapter is
devoted to preliminary discussions of possessive nominalizations,
semantic issues and the language specificity and the meaning of
the English prenominal possessive. The author concludes that the
distinctive character of the English prenominal possessive lies in
the fact that it has grammaticalized this component of a relation
of paradigmatic possessives (p. 19).

Chapter 2, "Theoretical Orientation" (pp. 21-57), discusses the
some aspects of the theoretical background to the exploration of
cognitive grammar, focusing in particular on general points of
contrast between cognitive grammar and generative approaches,
namely, cognitivism, the language faculty, modularity, the
modularity of language faculty, functionalism, mental processing,
the scope of semantics, conventionality, lexicalism and
constructionism, learnability. This chapter concludes with a
discussion of learnability, an issue where the contrasts between
the approaches are particularly conspicuous.

Chapter 3, "Some Basic Notions of Cognitive Grammar" (pp. 58-
80), introduces some basic concepts of cognitive
grammar. "Symbolic unit" is a central one. According to
Langacker (1987), the symbolic unit of cognitive grammar is
nothing other than the familiar 'linguistic sign', and he extends
the notion of linguistic sign both horizontally and vertically. Thus,
not only are the words and morphemes of a language regarded as
symbolic units, fixed idiomatic expressions also have symbolic
unit status, which comprises what Langacker calls "construction
schemas". For the symbolic thesis of language advocated by
Saussure, the author compares the views of generative and
cognitive linguists and concludes that "a person's knowledge of a
language contains a good deal of redundancy, with highly
schematic knowledge coexisting with a good deal of rather
specific knowledge of how the general schemas may be
instantiated." (p. 73; cf. Taylor 1995) In Section 3.4 (pp.73-80),
the question of the content of the semantic representations is

Chapter 4, "Syntax in Cognitive Grammar" (pp. 81-108), deals
with some aspects of the treatment of syntax and syntactic
categories in cognitive grammar bearing on the possessive
construction. The first few pages dwells on a distinction,
fundamental to cognitive grammar, between two kinds of
linguistic unit: those that designate things, and those that
designate relations. All linguistic units belong to one of these two
categories. Nouns and nominal expressions designate things,
whilst expressions of other syntactic categories (clausal,
prepostitional, adjectival, adverbial, etc.) designate relations. The
author entertains that the distinction is fundamental, not only to a
characterization of syntactic categories, but also to the mechanism
by which symbolic units combine to form units of increasing
internal complexity. For the kinds of relations, the following three
distinctions are presented. A first distinction amongst relational
predicates is between those that designate an atemporal relation
and those that designate a temporal relation, or process. A second
distinction has to do with whether the trajector and/or landmark of
a relation are things or are themselves relations. A third
distinction concerns the possibility that the landmark may be
'incorporated' into the relational predicate. The author then turns
to an issue central to any theory of syntax, that is, the combination
of linguistic units to form increasingly complex structures, in
which the relations of modification and complementation are
illustrated. As for the role of determiners, the author questions the
traditional account, in which a noun phrase is indeed headed by
the noun, and articles are assimilated to the more general category
of adjectival modifiers. He argues that the relational character of
grounding would be captured by means of an unprofiled relation
in the semantic structure of the determiner. The semantic structure
of a determiner would be analogous to the semantic structure of
an inherently relational noun like 'uncle' (p. 98). The author goes
on to diagram the semantic structure of a grounded nominal. This
chapter concludes with some remarks on the status and proper
characterization of case morphemes.

Chapter 5, "The Constituent Structure of Prenominal Possessives"
(pp. 109-145), discusses the constituent structure of prenominal
possessives, focusing on some of the more controversial issues
that arise within mainstream phrase structure and GB theories,
and concluding with a cognitive grammar of its constituency. In
this chapter, the author proposes a schematic structure for
prenominal possessives, arguing that the import of the possessor
nominal is to facilitate identification of the possessee, by mention
of a reference point entity that is cognitively accessible, and from
whose perspective the referent of the possessee nominal may be
identified. It is from this chapter that the discussion of possessives
really gets started.

Chapter 6, "Prenominal Possessives: Some Generative
Approaches" (pp. 146-183), as the title suggests, focuses on
generative approaches towards prenominal possessives. The
prenominal possessive constructions in English has a number of
distinctive properties, concerning both its internal structure and its
usage range, which set it apart form possessive constructions in
many other languages. In spite of its parochial character, the
construction has figured quite prominently in the
transformational-generative literature of the past two and a half
decades or so. This chapter undertakes a critical review of some
of these analyses, such as Chomsky's "Remarks on nominalization"
(1970), constraints on possessive nominalizations,
theta-theory for prenominal possessives, Safir's distinction of
prenominal possessives (1987), Giorgi and Longobardi's account,
semantic-based account of possessive nominalizations. And all
these considerations serves as an important ingredient of the
cognitive grammar account of possessive nominalizations that the
author develops in Chapter 9.

Chapter 7, "Specificity and Definiteness of Prenominal
Possessives" (pp. 184-204), addresses one important aspect of the
semantics of prenominal possessives, namely, their referential
properties. Three kinds of reference are first distinguished:
definite-specific, indefinite-specific, and non-specific. And the
author argues that prenominal possessives generally have specific
reference, and are nearly always compatible with definite
reference; nevertheless, there are no grounds for excluding in
principle the possibility that prenominal possessives may have
indefinite, non-specific reference. Definiteness and specificity
cannot therefore be regarded as inherent properties of the
construction. In the two sections that follows, the author examines
attempts of Woisetschlaeger and Lyons to derive the referential
properties of possessives from general syntactic principles,
pointing out that both accounts presuppose a conservative version
of X-bar syntax, and both proceed on the factually inaccurate and
problematic assumption that possessives invariably have definite
reference. The author argues that the failure of configurational
accounts points to the need for an alternative approach, motivated
by semantic and pragmatic considerations and that the referential
properties of possessives fall out rather naturally from the
reference account of the construction.

Chapter 8,: "Possessors as Topics" (pp. 205-235) and Chapter 9,
"The Cue Validity of the Possessor" (pp. 236-264) are devoted
to some aspects of the reference point analysis of the
possessive construction outlined in Chapter 1. Chapter 8
focuses on properties of the possessor, or reference point
nominal. On the reference point analysis, the possessor nominal
names a reference point entity, which the speaker introduces
as an aid for the subsequent identification of the target entity,
denoted by the possessee. By considering the expected
properties of reference point and target, the author tries to
formulate a number of predictions concerning the possessor
and the possessee. And confirmation of the predictions will
tend to confirm the correctness of the reference point analysis
The author concludes in Chapter 8 that topicality offers itself
as one factor behind the general impossibilitiy of reversing the
nominals in a possessive relation (235). And this property is
fully consistent with the asymmetry between the topical
possessor and the non-topical possessee. Chapter 9 concerns
the semantic relation between possessor and possessee. Given
the speaker's desire to uniquely identify the target, what
determines the choice of reference point? In addressing the
question, the author pays attention to the restrictions on
possessor nominals that were reviewed in Chapter 6, and that
are encapsulated in the Experience and Affectedness Constraints.
Actually, what the author strives to pursue is that, in addition to
the requirement that it be topical, the possessor nominal needs to
be such that it can provide reliable cues fro the identification of
the target.

Chapter 10, "Ing-nominalizations" (pp. 265-286), addresses the
use of the possessive morpheme in association with derverbal V-
ing forms, as exemplified in the following three types of
Type A: the enemy's destroying of the city.
Type B: the enemy's destroying the city.
Type C: the enemy destroying the city.
In terms of its internal syntax, Type A is the most nominal of the
ing-constructions. And the author holds that Type B and C
preserve, in their internal make-up, a number of characteristics of
the verbal expressions from which they derive.

Chapter 11, "Possessive Compounds" (pp. 287-314), begins with
a concern of characterizing possessive compounds, in
contradiction to prenominal possessives, with a view to
demonstrating that the distinctiveness of possessive compounds
vis-a-vis non-possessive compounds turn out, in many cases, to be
somewhat blurred and that the possessive morpheme in
compounds has to be a completely different kind of entity from
the possessive morpheme in prenominal possessives (cf. Croft
1990). As regards what motivates the presence of the possessive
morpheme in just some noun-noun compounds, but not in others,
the author suggests that a possessive construal is favored just in
case the compound exhibits features which are characteristic of
prenomina possessives (p. 308). The last section investigates
syntactic construction as prototype categories.

Chapter 12, "Other Possessive Constructions" (pp. 315-338),
deals with three further possessive constraints, each involving the
use of a possessor phrase, namely, the pronominal possessive, the
predicative possessive, and the postnominal possessive. In each
case, the possessor phrase is used independently of a postposed
possessee noun.

Chapter 13, "Possession" (pp. 339-351), addresses the topic of
possession. After clarifying the notion of possession, the author
presents several prototype accounts of possessive relations,
concluding that these accounts share with taxonomic accounts a
focus on the semantic relations between possessor and possessee,
to the neglect of the construction's discourse function. In the final
section, the author proposes that the reference point function
involves a subjectification of some aspects of paradigmatic

Besides presenting a cognitive grammar analysis of the
possessive, this book also undertakes a confrontation of the
cognitive grammar approach with some alternatives, in particular,
those that have been pursued within the generative, and more
recently, the government and binding paradigm, and its newest
progeny, principles and parameters. This highly-academic
monograph under review would contribute to the development of
the growing discipline of cognitive grammar. The book is
meticulously written, cogent and profound, with very few typos.
The only disappointment, as I see it, would be that the discussion
of the topic of possession in the last chapter appears a bit short.
Anyway, this book must be credited with overall success because
of exhaustive material, the richness of the analysis and the way it
presents its ideas.


Chomsky, N. (1970), "Remarks on nominalization", in R. Jacobs
and P. Rosenbaum, ed., Readings in English Transformational
Grammar, pp. 184-221. Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell.

Croft, W. (1990) Typology and Universals. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Langacker, R. (1987) Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, vol. 1.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Safir, K. (1987) "The syntactic projection of lexical thematic
structure", Natural and Language and Linguistic Theory, 5: 561-

Taylor, J. R. (1995) Linguistic Categorization: Prototypes in
Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1st ed. 1989).

About the reviewer:
Chaoqun Xie is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the Foreign
Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University in Fuzhou, Fujian
Province, China. His main areas of research interests include
cognitive linguistics, pragmatics, and communication.