Construction grammar

Author: William Croft


Construction grammar is a theory of syntax in which constructions are the central unit of grammatical representation. There is no textbook currently available for construction grammar, but there are many good case studies. Basic principles of construction grammar are outlined in the guide and references therein. The best learning technique is for a student to use one of the many freely available text corpora in various languages to select and analyze a single construction or family of constructions.

Table of contents

Construction grammar

Construction grammar is a theory of syntax in which constructions are the central unit of grammatical representation. There is no textbook currently available for construction grammar. A survey of construction grammar will appear as Part III of Cruse and Croft (in prep.; a draft is available from the second author). The classic paper is Fillmore, Kay & O'Connor 1988. Goldberg 1995 presents basic principles, with a specific application to argument structure. Good detailed analyses of specific English constructions from different theoretical perspectives are Lakoff 1987(Appendix 3); Wierzbicka 1982, 1987; Michaelis & Lambrecht 1996; Jackendoff 1997; and Kay & Fillmore 1999.

The essential principles of construction grammar

Because there is no textbook, I summarize the essential principles of construction grammar:

  1. Constructions are symbolic units or signs, that is, a pairing of form and meaning.
  2. A construction is the only unit of grammatical representation. There is a continuum from schematic complex constructions (corresponding to syntactic rules in other theories) to substantive atomic constructions, that is, words (corresponding to the lexicon in other theories).
  3. Constructions are organized in a network, chiefly by taxonomic relations and part-whole relations.
  4. (not universally accepted) The mental representation of a construction is determined not only by the (non)predictability of the constructional properties, but also by token and type frequency (the usage-based model; Bybee 1985, 1995).
  5. In lieu of a textbook, a class in construction grammar should focus on and critically discuss these four principles, with examples drawn from the articles cited below.

Teaching construction grammar

The best learning method for students is to use an existing text corpus to collect examples of a particular construction as the starting point of a constructional analysis. A useful source of freely available corpora in a wide range of languages is Barlow (forthcoming). These corpora are mostly simple text files (i.e. not lemmatized or tagged, let alone parsed). In this case, one must search for constructions which have specific words with few inflectional forms associated with them, such as the reciprocal construction (They love each other), the way construction (She made her way through the thicket), or the argument structure of specific verbs, such as eat or feed. Lemmatized and/or tagged corpora allow one to examine more schematic constructions.


Barlow, M. Available at: Cruse, D. A. & W. Croft. (Forthcoming) Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fillmore, C. J., P. Kay and M. K. O'Connor. 1988. Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: the case of let alone. Language 64:501-538.

Goldberg, A. E. (1995) Constructions: A construction grammar approach to argument structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jackendoff, R. (1997) Twistin' the night away. Language 73:534-59.

Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Michaelis, L. A. & K. Lambrecht. (1996) Toward a construction-based theory of language functions: the case of nominal extraposition. Language 72:.215-47.

Wierzbicka, A. (1982) Why can you have a drink when you can't *have an eat? Language 58:753-799.

Wierzbicka, A. (1987) Boys will be boys. Language 63:95-114.

Referencing this article

Below are the possible formats for citing Good Practice Guide articles. If you are writing for a journal, please check the author instructions for full details before submitting your article.

  • MLA style:
    Canning, John. "Disability and Residence Abroad". Southampton, 2004. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. 7 October 2008.
  • Author (Date) style:
    Canning, J. (2004). "Disability and residence abroad." Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Good Practice Guide. Retrieved 7 October 2008, from