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Review of  Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective

Reviewer: Valeria Quochi
Book Title: Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective
Book Author: Mirjam Fried Jan-Ola Östman
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Czech
Issue Number: 16.2277

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Date: Wed, 27 Jul 2005 23:54:55 +0200
From: Valeria Quochi
Subject: Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective

EDITORS: Fried, Mirjam; Östman, Jan-Ola
TITLE: Construction Grammar in a Cross-Language Perspective
SERIES: Constructional Approaches to Language 2
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Valeria Quochi, Linguistics Department, University of Pisa

[For another review of this book, see
1913.html --Eds.]


This book consists of 5 chapters by 4 different authors: M. Fried, J.
Östman, S. Fujii and K. Lambrecht. The book's goal is to present
Construction Grammar to the broader linguistic community both as a valid
formal theory of language, and as a useful set of tools for the
explanation and description of linguistic facts across languages. The book
can be divided into two main sections: The first two chapters give a nice
introduction to Construction Grammar as a model of grammar in general. The
authors reconstruct the historical roots of the theory as well as its
similarities with other theories. The second section, formed by the three
remaining chapters, shows how the formal tools previously presented can be
applied to explain and describe specific linguistic expressions in
different languages, namely Czech, Japanese and French.

Chapter 1: J. Östman and M. Fried, "Historical and intellectual background
of Construction Grammar". In this chapter the authors reconstruct the
origins of Construction Grammar, its theoretical roots and its present-day
developments, as well as give a nice introduction to the whole volume. The
authors first attempt to clarify the notion of Construction, which has
been abused in recent linguistic analyses of various orientations, and
then to establish it as the main building block of Construction Grammar.

Construction Grammar originates from the works and theories elaborated by
C. Fillmore, his colleagues and students at Berkeley in the 1980s,
evolving particularly from Case Grammar (Fillmore 1968) and
Lakoff's "Gestalt" Grammar (1977). During the 90s it was further
elaborated by various Berkeley linguists and formalized, especially by
Paul Kay. The application of constructional principles originally started
with the so-called peripheral, idiomatic expressions and has subsequently
been applied to other parts of grammar. The book as a whole tries to bring
together what the authors believe are the most significant "branches" of
Construction Grammar still active and valuable today.

Among the current lexical semantic frameworks, the authors highlight how
Frame Semantics and Construction Grammar naturally and logically
complement each other. Frame Semantics, in fact, represents the meaning of
words: specifically, it is about the relationship between form and
function from the perspective of lexical semantics. Construction Grammar
has the same concerns but from the broader perspective of grammar.

Relative to the question whether Construction Grammar is a universal model
of grammatical knowledge, the authors state that what can be considered
universal in Construction Grammar is the set of formal mechanisms and
representational apparatus, given that Construction Grammar notions are
grounded in general cognition. Several studies of various phenomena in
different languages seem to suggest that Construction Grammar is adequate
for relating to a universal aspect of language as well as language-
specific facts. No assumption is made, however, as to what linguistic
structures or properties should be considered universal.

Chapter 2: by M. Fried and J-O. Östman, "Construction Grammar: A Thumbnail
Sketch" is an overview of Construction Grammar that addresses both its
theoretical foundations and its basic formal devices.

Construction Grammar is defined as "a non-modular, generative, non-
derivational, monostratal, unification-based grammatical approach (Kay
1995:171). It is non-modular in that all types of information
(morphosyntactic, phonetic/phonologic, semantic, pragmatic etc.) are to be
represented at one and the same level, within a complex sign; and
monostratal because there are no derivations, transformations or
movements: all expressions are not generated, but 'licensed' by particular
abstract constructions. It is generative in the sense that it attempts to
account for all the exclusively grammatical utterances in a language.
Construction Grammar is also said to be a Maximalist Theory and usage-
based approach because its goal is to cover all the grammatical facts of a
language, and attempts to do so by analyzing real occurring data. Finally,
Unification is the basic formal mechanism that "ensures that pieces of
linguistic material that do not match along any number and types of
properties (i.e. syntactic, semantic, pragmatic) will not be licensed as
possible constructs of a given language" (Chapter 2: 25).

The notion of Construction is the basic unit of analysis and
representation. Constructions are considered to be cognitive entities out
of which speakers, build, complex expressions; therefore, utterances are
the product of the interaction between grammatical constructions and
linguistic material (i.e. words, or lexical constructions).

In Construction Grammar all linguistic expressions, from morphemes to
sentences to prosodic elements, are represented in the same way as
constructions, so that no type of expression can be considered as more
central or peripheral than the others. The analytical tools described in
this chapter are claimed not to need any a priori decisions about what is
core and what is peripheral in language: idiomaticity, and semi-
productivity, and regularity are treated alike.
Every construction, however, may specify more or less detailed
information about its characteristics depending on its nature. Among the
things that a construction may specify are morphosyntactic properties like
dependency relations and ordering constraints, prosodic and phonetic
shape, meaning features like boundedness or animacy, information about
context like register. No information is obligatory, however, and there is
no minimal number of features that a construction has to specify. Usually
grammatical and lexical constructions interact and integrate in non-
trivial ways, and it is specifically to account for how they interact that
the formalism of Construction Grammar has been and still is being

Constructions of varying degree of abstraction and complexity are
organized into networks and families structured through inheritance and
instantiation relations. Box notation is the graphical organizational tool
that has been chosen to formalize grammatical knowledge. Notation relies
on 3 main devices: nested boxes are used to represent constituent
structure; feature structures are used for encoding grammatical
information; and co-indexation is used to keep track of unification
relations. Feature Structures, i.e. attribute-values matrices, are not
posited a priori, rather the identification of the relevant categories and
values for the description and representation of a given grammatical
construction is data-driven, which means that no category in the framework
can be considered as universal or primitive.

The representation of complex and larger grammatical patterns is made
through two main domains of representation: one is the external domain,
which represents the characteristics of a construction as a whole; the
other is the internal domain, which represents the constituents (i.e.
smaller constructions) that make up the construction. Both domains may be
more or less detailed, thus constraining at different degrees the
inventory of lexical constructions or linguistic material that can be
unified with a construction.

Finally, there are two main principles for building larger grammatical
patterns in Construction Grammar: Linking and Instantiation. Linking
constructions must specify how semantic arguments of lexical constructions
unify in a given grammatical pattern. Depending on the particular language
analyzed, linking constructions may involve case marking, grammatical
functions, word order. The fundamental role of linking constructions in
general is to integrate frame-semantic and valence information of lexical
items with grammatical constructions.

Instantiation Principles, on the other hand, are described to serve the
purpose of constraining how constituents are physically realized within a
grammatical construction: depending again on the language, they determine
for example the structural dependencies between constituents, the
grammatical functions that have to be present, or the specific word order.

All the representational devices sketched in this review receive a
detailed description and motivation supported by exemplified analyses of
interesting constructions, not only in English.

Chapter 3: M. Fried " Predicate Semantics and Event Construal in Czech
Case marking" describe an analysis of a semi-productive experiential
construction in Czech, with respect to a similar but productive one. Both
of them are impersonal constructions, i.e. they lack a nominative Noun
Phrase, and both express some kind of experience located in a body part.
However, whereas the fully productive pattern marks the Experiencer Noun
Phrase with the Dative Case, there exists a range of similar expressions
in which the Experiencer has the accusative case.

The main claim of the paper is that case marking follows regular
principles of Czech grammar even in the semi-productive Accusative-
Experiencer Construction, which is traditionally considered idiomatic
precisely because case assignment seems not to follow the general rules of
the grammar. Fried shows that, in this construction, case marking can be
considered as regularly assigned if one considers that both head
predicates and constructions synergistically contribute to its
determination. In the Dative-Experiencer Construction, which requires zero-
place or unaccusative predicates, case assignment is fully predictable on
the bases of the general principles of the grammar, even if its
Experiencer and Locative arguments cannot be licensed by the predicate,
but must be contributed by the construction.

The Accusative Construction shares many of the constructional feature of
the Dative one (i.e. the locative argument, the suppression of the agent
etc.), but appears to be more restricted, which turns out to be the key
for their different case marking. Among its restrictions, is the
fundamental fact that this constructions appears to unify only with
(semantically) transitive verbs, and the predicate tends to appear in the
perfective aspect (another mark of transitivity and of complete
affectedness of the patient, in Czech). These observations explain the
tendency of the experiencer in this construction to receive accusative
case, and, at the same time, it explains why, in some cases, dative
marking is also possible. Moreover, the accusative marking of the
experiencer is shown to be exploited elsewhere in the grammar, namely in
an agent-demoting construction. The accusative construction is only
partially productive because the possibility of marking the experiencer
with the Dative Case is highly restricted on semantic and pragmatic

Case assignment is performed via the linking constructions that are
inherited by the constructions, or by the head predicate. Constructions
evoke the interpretive frames, which motivates the semantic properties in
the external domain, in particular the inheritance of linking
constructions. In Czech, transitive patients are linked to the accusative
case and the dative case is assigned to not fully or directly affected
endpoints. The "dative" assignment involved in the construction described
is represented as the Dative-of-Interest linking construction; it is via
the inheritance of this construction and a Locative construction, and via
the integration of the semantic information of both the head predicate and
the interpretive frame evoked by the construction, that the Dative-
Experiencer Construction correctly assign case roles to its arguments.

In the accusative constructions something different takes place: the
Accusative Linking Construction is inherited in the internal domain,
through the predicate, and therefore it licenses the patient to be linked
to the accusative case. Still, the patient argument is construed as an
experiencer because it is an external property of the construction. The
unification is less straightforward, but it is nevertheless successful
because there is no other candidate argument; however, in special
situations or contexts there is the possibility for the speaker to give
priority to the external properties of the construction, thus overwriting
the predicate requirements and assigning dative case.

The difference observed between the "regular" dative-experiencer
construction and the "idiomatic" accusative construction, in the end, is
shown to depend on where the relevant linking constructions comes from:
the external or internal domain. Externally idiomatic expressions may,
therefore, have a predictable internal organization, when one acknowledges
that case marking in Czech is sensitive to the valence of the predicate.

Chapter 4: Fujii "Lexically filled constructional schemes and types:
Japanese modal conditional constructions" presents an interesting corpus-
based analysis and representation of a class of conditional constructions
in Japanese. In order to give a unified account for the data the author
posits two kinds of orthogonal constructions: Constructional Schemes and
Construction Types, which capture all relevant generalizations over a set
of similar expressions manifesting different degrees of idiosyncrasy.

Constructional Schemes are lexically unfilled templates that can be
instantiated by particular lexical items (in this case by clause linkers).
They represent generalizations over distinct construction types that share
some semantic properties. Construction Types represent the specific formal
properties of the constructions, along with the relevant restrictions, and
therefore explicitly keep each class of construct distinct from the others.

The linguistic objects under investigation are three deontic modal
conditional constructions, represented as three distinct Construction
Types: a fully regular and productive bi-clausal construction, a more
restricted constructions called Integrated Evaluative Conditional, and a
fully idiosyncratic Reduced Construction. All of them may receive an
interpretation of obligation, and all of them have the same structural
first part (the conditional antecedent). The three constructions are also
different with respect to restrictions on their form and degrees of
productivity. One important difference lies in the way they get the
relevant pragmatic interpretation: while both the Integrated and the
Reduced Constructions are demonstrated to be conventionally associated
with a particular modality meaning (depending on the clause linker), the
productive bi-clausal construction may only receive that interpretation
through conversational implicature. There is also a difference in how the
semantic interpretation is obtained between the Integrated and the Reduced
constructions: in the former the pragmatic function is claimed to be
achieved compositionally, whereas the latter is completely idiosyncratic.
Thus, the Reduced Construction is considered to be a special case of the
Integrated Construction, and a conventionalization of the conversational
implicature implicit in the bi-clausal construction. However, according to
the author the constructional scheme, not the bi-clausal construction, is
the source of the Reduced Construction, because it is the specific
pragmatic meaning that uniquely links all construction types together.

Various clause linkers may be involved in the different constructions, and
it is observed that different clause linkers are consistently associated
with one and the same modal interpretation across the three constructions.
This facts suggest that clause linkers are more appropriately associated
with Construction Schemes, and thus provide the main motivation for their

The main theoretical point of the paper is that, positing these two types
of constructions, the model becomes more economical: constructional
schemes account for the differences in meaning and will have different
associated clause linkers, whereas construction types account for the
structural dissimilarities between constructs, which are independent from
the particular modal interpretation. A Constructional Scheme together with
its related Construction Types, constitute a family of constructions.

Chapter 5: K. Lambrecht "Interaction of Information Structure and formal
structure. French Right Detached 'comme'-N construction" analyses a very
common, yet unaccounted for by traditional grammars and dictionaries,
French spoken grammatical construction that belongs to the family of Right-
Detached constructions. The analysis demonstrates that the form of the
construction directly reflects its information-structure requirements,
while at the same time being formally, semantically and pragmatically
motivated because its relevant features occur elsewhere in the grammar of
French. Nevertheless, the combination of elements in the construction is
shown to be not predictable from general principles of French grammar.

The Right Detached 'comme'-N construction is a special kind of a general
and basic French construction, the Preferred-Clause construction, from
which it inherits its main characteristics: i.e. the predicate-focus
information structure. In particular, The Right Detached 'comme'-N
construction inherits features also from a general dislocation
construction in French (the Right Topic construction). The Right-
Detached 'Comme'-N construction splits the complement of a standard copula
construction (a kind of Preferred-Clause construction) leaving the
adjective modifier of the Noun Phrase in it post-verbal position and
dislocating the Noun to the right, i.e. after the clause boundary that is
marked by the main sentence accent (ex. 'C'est marrant, comme histoire'
vs. 'C'est une histoire marrante'). Sentence accent in French is used also
to mark the focus domain, and topicalization cannot be marked through
deaccentuation, which motivates the existence of dislocation constructions
in French, that is as a structural means to topicalize an element the is
within the focus domain.

The Right-Topic construction and the Right Detached 'comme'-N
construction, however, are two distinct constructions in that the detached
constituent of the first one have a referential function, because it
provides a referent for the bound pronoun that has to be present in the
main clause. The detached element of the 'comme'-N construction, instead,
is not syntactically or semantically related to the main sentence - no
bounded pronoun is present in the main clause- nor it has a referential
function. The detached element of the 'comme'-N construction has the
pragmatic role of specifying the category of the referent of the subject
of the main clause. Other restrictions apply, which make the construction
both syntactically and semantically non compositional: The noun in
the 'comme' phrase, for example, is necessarily a predicative, bare noun
and cannot be freely modified; and the 'comme'-Noun phrase does not have
the meaning it has elsewhere in the grammar, so that it must be considered
a construction specific constituent, where 'comme' functions like a
copula. The truth-conditional meaning of the construction, however, is
equivalent to the standard copula construction, an instance of the
Preferred- Clause construction, which is another proof of the fact that
the physical appearance of the construction as a whole reflects its
information structure.

The information structural difference between a canonical copula
construction and its equivalent 'comme' construction are demonstrated to
depend on the different scope of the focus domain. In the canonical
construction the entire denotation of the complement noun phrase is
focused, whereas in the Right-Detached 'Comme'-N construction it is only
the property predicated of the noun that is focused. Spoken French
idiosyncratically mark this special information structure with a special
type of dislocation, which basically tells the hearer that the category of
the entity predicated is presupposed even if not previously introduced.

Lambrecht analysis relies on two main assumptions: first of all it is
assumed that pragmatic, information-structure features may be associated
to constructions in the same way as semantic features, in order to
restrict the possible discourse contexts in which they are used. Moreover,
there must exist an information structure component in which these
associations are formalized and that interacts directly with the formal
and conceptual components to give rise to unique form-function pairings.
In the case presented in the chapter, information structure is shown to
directly determine the syntactic and prosodic shape of the whole


The book as a whole is an interesting introduction to Construction Grammar
as a formal theory of language, and shows that the framework is
sufficiently flexible and accurate to account for linguistic facts across
languages. The volume, and in particular Chapter 2, will thus be an
extremely useful reference for anyone interested in constructional
approaches, especially since no textbook is publicly available yet
(Fillmore and Kay's manual being still in manuscript form).

The three chapters dedicated to the study of special expressions in three
different and unrelated languages demonstrate convincingly that
construction grammar notions and formalism are useful in the analysis and
representation of subtle facts about languages different from English, for
many years the preferred language for constructional approaches. They show
that a constructional approach is even more desirable than traditional
approaches for other languages, because it allows for a uniform treatment
of productive, less productive and highly idiosyncratic constructs,
therefore capturing the generalizations that hold among them more
accurately. The treatment of Case Marking, the construal of events in
Chapter 3 and the investigation of the role of information structure on
the shaping of constructions in Chapter 5 are of great interest.

Although the overall impression of the volume is highly positive, there
are a few items that appear to be contradictory or unnecessary.
Construction Grammar, by definition, is non-modular and monostratal; yet
Fried's account requires different layers of semantic information: at
least a lexical-level semantics, that would encode frame semantic
information of single lexical items, and a clause-level semantics, that
would encode constructional meaning. Moreover a semantic component is
mentioned (chapter 3: 89). Given the rest of the discussion and analysis,
I take this to be a terminological problem rather than a conceptual
inconsistency, which might nevertheless be confusing. This possibly
apparent contradiction is also present in Lambrecht's account, which
posits an "information-structure component" that directly interacts with
the other component of formal and conceptual structure. Again because this
information is represented and formalized as constructions, I consider it
to be a terminological ambiguity.

Fujii's analysis of the Japanese Conditional Constructions posits two
types of constructions, Construction Schemes and Construction Types, as
fundamental formal notions that make it possible to capture the relevant
functional generalizations over different constructions. In my
understanding of the general framework, constructions by definition can be
more or less abstract, so that the distinction between construction kinds
seems unnecessary, albeit at the terminological level for the sake of
clarity. Constructional Schemes can be viewed as highly abstract
constructions (by virtue of their associated pragmatic function) from
which the more specific constructions will inherit the shared properties.


Fillmore, Charles J. (1968) The case for case. In Bach, Emmon and Robert
T. Harms (eds.): Universals in Linguistic Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart
& Winston. 1-88.

Kay, Paul (1995) Construction Grammar. In J. Verschueren, J-O. Östman and
J. Blommaert (eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics. Manual, 171-177. Amsterdam &
Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Lakoff, George (1977) Linguistic Gestalts. Chicago Linguistic Society 13,


Valeria Quochi is a 3rd year PhD student in Linguistics at the University
of Pisa, Italy. Her first degree is roughly equivalent to a major degree
in English and German. She is interested in Computational Linguistics, and
in particular in data-driven, cognitive approaches to language. Currently
she is working on language acquisition of semi-productive constructions in
Italian, with a constructional approach.