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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar

Reviewer: Michael Pleyer
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar
Book Author: Thomas Hoffmann Graeme Trousdale
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Book Announcement: 24.3771

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“The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar,” edited by Thomas Hofmann and Graeme Trousdale, offers the first comprehensive overview of Construction Grammar (henceforth CxG). It features 27 chapters written by leading researchers in the field. The chapters deal with the theoretical foundations of CxG, the different constructionist approaches, and CxG’s main areas of application. In addition to a general index, the volume also has an index of the constructions that are discussed in the various chapters.

The book is divided into five parts: “Principles and Methods”, “Constructionist Approaches”, “From Morphemes to Clauses and Beyond”, “Acquisition and Cognition”, and “Language Variation and Change”.

In chapter 1, “Construction Grammar: Introduction”, Thomas Hoffmann and Graeme Trousdale present a very brief introduction to some of the main tenets of CxG, contrasting them with what they call “Chomskyan Mainstream Generative Grammar approaches”, and summarize the individual chapters of the volume.

In the first chapter of Part I “Principles and Methods”, Adele E. Goldberg deals with the underlying shared assumptions of “Constructionist Approaches” in more detail: (1) Constructionist approaches deal with learned form-function pairings of varying size and schematicity; (2) Grammar is non-derivational; (3) Constructions are organized in networks; (4) There is grammatical variability between languages, but there are also generalized patterns across languages; (5) Constructionist approaches are usage-based.

In Chapter 3, Paul Kay discusses “The Limits of (Construction) Grammar”. He adopts Fillmore’s (1997) distinction between fully productive “constructions proper”, on the one hand, and “patterns of coining”, which are analogical and only partially productive, on the other. Kay argues that many of the structures that are described as constructions in other approaches -- including, for example, the ‘Caused Motion Construction’ -- in fact belong to the latter category. Thus, they should not be seen as part of grammar, but of a descriptive meta-grammar.

In contrast, the following chapter by Joan Bybee deals with “Usage-based Theory and Exemplar Representations of Constructions.” Usage-based theory sees knowledge of language as based on experience with actual language use in context. Therefore, in this framework, language processing, usage patterns and the establishment of networks of constructions in a language user’s cognitive system are explained in terms of domain-general processes related to usage events. These processes include factors such as frequency effects, categorization, exemplar storage, cross-modal association, and processes of neuromotor automation such as chunking.

In Chapter 5, Ray Jackendoff talks about “Constructions in the Parallel Architecture”, which sees lexical items as pieces of linguistic structure stored in long-term memory that link and combine structures in the three generative and independent components of phonology, syntax, and semantics. He outlines the differences between his use of the theoretical notion of construction and that of other Construction Grammarians and also defends his view that there can be abstract linguistic structures that do not have a semantic component.

Stefan Th. Gries, in chapter 6, discusses the role of “Data in Construction Grammar.” As he shows, many Construction Grammarians have turned more and more towards “methods that are more rigorous and replicable than introspective judgements.” These include observational methods using corpus data and statistical measurements, as well as experimental and computational-linguistic approaches.

Part II, “Constructionist Approaches”, contains seven chapters that give an overview of the frameworks that assign a central role to the notion of construction in their analyses of language.

In chapter 7, Charles Fillmore presents a historical overview of key aspects of “Berkeley Construction Grammar” (BCG). The aim of this framework -- which Fillmore developed together with Paul Kay in the late 80s to mid 90s, and which was the first to explicitly call itself a “Construction Grammar” -- was to describe both canonical and ‘special’ grammatical phenomena with the same mechanisms and descriptive formalism.

In the next Chapter, Laura A. Michaelis discusses the theoretical foundations and descriptive formalism of “Sign-Based Construction Grammar” (SBCG), a constraint-based framework inspired by BCG and Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. The linguistic objects in SBCG are signs and constructs, which are modelled using highly complex, formalized feature structures, which in turn are classified in a system of types. In terms of grammatical description, constructs are licensed by constructions, which combine signs into more complex signs.

Chapter 9, by Luc Steels, turns to “Fluid Construction Grammar”, a formalism that is particularly interested in the computational implementation of CxG notions. Steels describes the computational machinery, data structures, and operations as well as the higher level, abstract design patterns needed to explicitly formalize language structure, processing and learning from the point of view of CxG.

In Chapter 10, Ben Bergen and Nancy Chang present the framework of “Embodied Construction Grammar” (ECG), which, according to the authors, is an “empirically driven, computationally implemented, predictive theory” (p. 169) interested in the cognitive as well as neural mechanisms that are engaged in language use. Specifically, ECG tries to spell out the ways in which linguistic units such as constructions lead to and instruct embodied simulation (see also Bergen 2012).

Cristiano Broccias, in Chapter 11, deals with the theory of “Cognitive Grammar” (CG) developed by Ronald W. Langacker (e.g. Langacker 1987, 2008). In CG, language is thought to consist entirely of assemblies of symbolic structures. These are pairings of a semantic, ‘meaning’, pole with a phonological, ‘form,’ pole. From this assumption it follows that lexicon, morphology, and syntax are on a continuum, because these structures are all symbolic assemblies of different schematicity and complexity. In addition, given these assumptions, grammar is inherently meaningful. Moreover, CG sees language as grounded in general cognitive processes.

William Croft, in Chapter 12, presents his theory of “Radical Construction Grammar”. In RCG, “constructions are the basic units of grammar” (p. 217). Importantly, grammatical categories do not exist independently of constructions, and the formal properties of constructions -- that is, the details of a construction’s mapping between semantic structure and syntactic structure -- are language-specific.

In Chapter 13, “Cognitive Construction Grammar” (CCG), Hans C. Boas discusses Adele Goldberg’s constructionist approach, which emphasizes the importance of cognitive/psychological motivations and factors in linguistic analysis. In CCG, constructions are defined as conventionalized and entrenched form-meaning pairings of varying size, complexity, and schematicity that are organized in taxonomic networks. They thus apply to all levels of grammatical analysis.

Part III subsumes chapters that deal with the “Constructicon: From Morphemes to Clauses and Beyond.” These chapters therefore demonstrate how CxG “can be used for the analysis of all types of (morpho)syntactic phenomena from the lexicon-syntax cline” (p. 8).

“Morphology in Construction Grammar” is the topic of Geert Booij’s chapter. In this chapter, he illustrates the descriptive success of his theory Construction Morphology, which proposes the existence of hierarchically organized constructions that contain abstract morphological schemas and more specific subschemas. He also shows that morphological constructions exhibit holistic properties “not derivable from the properties of its constituents and/or its structure” (p. 260).

Stefanie Wulff investigates the role of “Words and Idioms” in Construction Grammar in Chapter 15. As she stresses, words, idioms, and grammatical frames differ in their degree of specification, but they are not fundamentally different. Idiomaticity, irregularity, and compositionality of constructions are matters of degree and can be investigated using corpus measures.

In Chapter 16, Anatol Stefanowitsch introduces “Collostructional Analysis” (a blend of ‘collocation’ and ‘construction’). Stefanowitsch summarizes the main methods employed in collostructional analysis, which he defines as “a family of quantitative corpus-linguistic methods for studying the relationships between words and the grammatical structures they occur in” (p. 290). He also discusses some applications of the method as well as methodological issues and some of the cognitive mechanisms that are assumed by collostructional analysis.

Chapter 17, by Thomas Hoffmann, focuses on “Abstract Phrasal and Clausal Constructions”. Hoffmann points out that constructions differ in their degree of schematicity: fully specified constructions are on the lexical end of the lexicon-syntax continuum, and abstract constructions with schematic slots (e.g. the Ditransitive construction) on the more syntactic end. As he shows, the analytical apparatus of CxG is very well-suited to analyse these abstract constructions, such as abstract clausal constructions, filler-gap constructions, or the English comparative correlative construction.

Jaakko Leino, in Chapter 18, looks at central concepts of “Information Structure” and their potential relevance for constructionist approaches. Leino emphasizes that topics that are important in research on information structure, like word order, presupposition, identifiability, assertion, activation, topic, and focus are highly relevant for CxG research and should be included in analyses of the structure of constructions. In addition, CxG also presents itself as “an attractive framework for information structure researchers” (p. 332).

The four chapters of Part IV move to issues of “Acquisition and Cognition” and look at first language acquisition, second language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics, respectively.

In Chapter 19, “Construction Grammar and First Language Acquisition”, Holger Diessel elaborates on research within the usage-based and CxG framework that investigates how children acquire a structured network of constructions. Diessel argues and presents evidence that children master the task of “constructing a language” (Tomasello 2003) by using domain-general learning mechanisms and slowly moving from early item-based constructions to increasingly abstract constructional schemas and complex sentence constructions.

The following chapter, by Nick Ellis, turns to “Construction Grammar and Second Language Acquisition.” Ellis outlines the key concepts of a usage-based, constructionist approach to SLA that treats language as a Complex Adaptive System (e.g., Beckner et al. 2009). In this approach, a learner’s knowledge of L2 constructions depends on the interaction of a variety of factors in the domains of input frequency, form, and function. The main goal of such an approach, according to Ellis, is to “bring together linguistic form, learner cognition, and usage” (p. 377).

In Chapter 21, “Psycholinguistics”, Giulia M. L. Bencini elucidates the representations and processes involved in language production from a CxG perspective. She shows how constructions can be integrated into a theory of sentence production and argues that much psycholinguistic work on language production assumes representations that are highly compatible with the CxG framework. In addition, she stresses the importance of constraints on language production in “understanding how processing/usage shapes grammars”.

In the last chapter of this part, Friedemann Pulvermüller, Yury Shtyrov and Bert Capelle turn to the “Brain Basis of Meaning, Words, Constructions and Grammar“. They offer a brief overview of neuronal processes that are relevant to the cognitive assumptions of CxG. On their reading, from a neuroscientific perspective the following assumptions have a high degree of plausibility and support: (1) Human language is based on other cognitive capacities; (2) Syntax and semantics are tightly integrated; (3) Schematic constructions can carry meaning. However, according to the authors, the claim that (4) ‘Lexicon and syntax form a continuum and there is no principal difference between them’ is inconsistent with the radically different neural activation patterns exhibited by word-level vs. above-word level constructions.

The last part (IV) of the volume covers “Language Variation and Change”. The first three chapters focus on language change, whereas the last two chapters of the volume deal with social variation in language.

In Chapter 23, Mirjam Fried talks about “Principles of Constructional Change”. She holds that an integration of grammaticalization research and constructional analysis is highly promising. CxG can help in capturing the emergence of grammatical structure and the motivations for language change. However, the concept of constructionalization and the question to what extent constructions can be the domain of gradual linguistic change needs to be explicated more precisely.

“Construction-Based Historical-Comparative Reconstruction“ is the topic of Chapter 24, written by Jóhanna Barðdal. According to Barðdal, the view that language consists of complex and schematic form-meaning pairings makes “Construction Grammar an optimal theoretical framework for reconstructing syntax” (p. 439). This proposal is illustrated with an exploratory look at cognate argument structure constructions that shed light on the syntactic reconstruction of a (Proto-)Indo-European Proto-Construction.

Martin Hilpert, in Chapter 25, deals with “Corpus-based Approaches to Constructional Change”. Hilpert distinguishes between the study of grammaticalization, and diachronic CxG, the latter being broader in terms of the processes of language change it looks at. In addition, he shows what kinds of factors in the domains of frequency, form, and function are relevant in constructional change and how it can be studied with the use of historical corpora.

Chapter 26, “Dialects, Discourse and Construction Grammar”, by Jan-Ola Östman and Graeme Trousdale, explores how CxG deals with variability in language use related to community membership as well as geographical, interactional, and discourse factors. As they argue, a truly usage-based CxG that takes variation and discourse seriously should take into account constraints on variation, the distribution of different grammatical structures in different varieties of the same language, and the influence of context.

In the last chapter, Willem Hollmann is concerned with the role of “Constructions in Cognitive Sociolinguistics”. Hollman points out that Cognitive Linguistics and CxG can contribute important notions to sociolinguistic theory, such as the importance of cognitive factors such as frequency and the role of constructional schemas. However, these disciplines can also profit by integrating the perspective adopted by sociolinguistics, which sees language not only as a cognitive phenomenon, but as an interactional activity in a society.


Over the last two decades, Construction Grammar and constructionist approaches have increasingly gained in popularity. This development was parallel to that of Cognitive Linguistics. This is not surprising, as Cognitive Linguistics and CxG share many main assumptions and descriptive goals. There are a number of comprehensive introductions to and overviews of Cognitive Linguistics in general. In particular, the publication of the “Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics” (Geeraerts & Cuyckens 2007) marked a major milestone in the development of the field. In contrast, the situation for CxG looked quite different until now. Although there are sections on CxG in introductory textbooks to Cognitive Linguistics (e.g. Croft & Cruse 2004: 225-237; Evans & Green 2006: 641-706; Ungerer & Schmid 2006: 244-256), “no single volume” -- as the editors of the present volume note -- “has been available to students and researchers that gives a full overview of what the various Construction Grammar approaches have in common, what their major differences are, and how Construction Grammar may be applied to other domains of linguistic enquiry” (p. ix) (Ziem & Lasch 2013 is an example of a book-length introduction to CxG accessible to a general audience, but it is only available in German and only deals with usage-based approaches.)

“The Oxford Handbook of Construction Grammar” fills this gap and succeeds on all counts in presenting a comprehensive and authoritative guide to CxG and constructionist approaches.
It certainly will become the go-to guide for students and researchers interested in Construction Grammar, although some of the chapters might be too advanced for the former group.

There are of course some minor issues with the handbook that could be mentioned. First of all, in terms of ordering and the internal cohesion of the volume, Stefanowitsch’s strongly methodologically oriented chapter on collostructional analysis does not seem to sit very comfortably with the other chapters in Part III, “Constructicon: From Morphemes to Clauses and Beyond”. Instead it would probably have fitted in more naturally with Gries’ chapter on “Data in Construction Grammar” in Part I, “Principles and Methods.” A further issue with Part III is the following: though the editors note that the chapters in this part are “couched in a general constructionist terminology“, so that they are “maximally accessible to all readers” (p. 8), not all chapters succeed equally well in this task.

In addition, some critics might argue that “a general constructionist terminology” does not really exist, as usage-based, cognitively oriented constructionist approaches (such as Cognitive Grammar, Cognitive Construction Grammar, Radical Construction Grammar) differ quite strongly in some regards from unificational approaches (such as Berkeley Construction Grammar and Sign-Based Construction Grammar) and computational approaches (such as Fluid Construction Grammar and Embodied Construction Grammar). In relation to this, the volume might have profited from a short chapter that summarized the tensions, debates, and conflicting views voiced in the different chapters more fully than it is done in the individual chapters. Whereas Goldberg, in her chapter, advocates the use of the term “constructionist approaches” and argues that “the field might be well served by moving away from creating divisions among closely related frameworks by labelling them X, Y, or Z Grammars” (p. 31), some substantial disagreements remain. For example, in contrast to Cognitive Construction Grammar and Cognitive Grammar, Jackendoff maintains that there are syntactic principles independent of meaning. Both he and Kay also offer alternative analyses of some of the constructions posited by Goldberg. Moreover, Pulvermüller et al.’s claim that lexical construction and schematic grammatical constructions work very differently from a neuromechanistic perspective goes counter to the basic assumptions of many constructionist approaches. It remains to be seen how this view can be accommodated by constructionist research.

These minor issues, however, do not detract from the overall quality of the volume, which marks an important milestone in the development of the field and will very likely serve as the most important reference work for overviews of CxG and constructionist approaches for years to come.


Beckner, C., R. A. Blythe, J. L. Bybee, M. H. Christiansen, W. Croft, N. C. Ellis, J. Holland, J. Ke, D. Larsen-Freeman and T. Schoenemann (2009): ''Language is a complex adaptive system.'' In: Language Learning 59(s1): 1-26.

Bergen, Benjamin K. (2012): Louder than words : the new science of how the mind makes meaning. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Croft, William and David A. Cruse (2004): Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, Vyvyan and Melanie Green (2006): Cognitive Linguistics : an introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk and H. Cuyckens (2007): The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. (1987): Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. I: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. (2008): Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tomasello, Michael (2003): Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press.

Ungerer, Friedrich and Hans-Jörg Schmid (2006): An introduction to cognitive linguistics. Harlow ; Munich: Pearson/Longman.

Ziem, Alexander and Alexander Lasch (2013): Konstruktionsgrammatik: Konzepte und Grundlagen gebrauchsbasierter Ansätze. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Michael Pleyer is a PhD student at the English Department of Heidelberg University and the Heidelberg Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences. The topic of his PhD project is “Perspective and Perspective in Language and Cognition: A Cognitive-Linguistic and Cognitive-Developmental Approach.” His research interests include Cognitive Linguistics, Language Acquisition, Construction Grammar, Perspectivation and Construal, and the Evolution of Language and Cognition. He is a contributor to the academic group blog A Replicated Typo (, which deals with questions relating to the evolution of language, culture, and cognition.

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