Review essay on: Goldberg, A. Constructions: A construction grammar approach to argument structure. University of Chicago Press (1995). Pp. xi+265.
The cornerstone of traditional descriptive grammars is the construction: a recurrent pattern of linguistic elements that serves some well-defined communicative function. Prototypical constructions are sentence-level patterns such as, in English: the imperative, the ditransitive, the passive, the resultative, the yes–no question, and the cleft (each of which may have some subtypes). Also included in some theorists' definition of construction are components of sentences such as the prepositional phrase, the noun phrase, or the genitive noun phrase. Traditional constructions may have some specific words or morphemes associated with them (e.g. by in the full passive, 's in the genitive), but these are generally closed-class morphemes. Almost by definition, traditional constructions are relatively abstract patterns that apply across whole classes of open-class morphemes.
One of the defining features of modern-day generative grammar is the absence of constructions. Chomsky (1981) hypothesized that grammatical structure comprises two primary levels: the level of principles and parameters, which is much more abstract than constructions and includes everything from the subjacency constraint to the empty category principle, and the level of the lexicon, which includes all of the concrete morphemes and words of a particular language. In this view, constructions represent a ‘middle level’ of analysis that is, in effect, an epiphenomenon resulting from the interaction of the two primary levels. One outcome of this theoretical move has been that generative linguists concerned with construction-level phenomena have had to fill the generative lexicon with ever richer types of linguistic information, especially for verbs (e.g. Bresnan, 1982; Jackendoff, 1990; Levin, 1995; Pinker, 1989).
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