Grammar rules or grammar constructions

George Lakoff

Construction grammar

Construction Grammar refers to a study of language that views grammar not as a collection of rules that generates sentences (as in generative grammar) but as a continuum involving both syntax and lexicon, a pairing of form and content. Likewise, syntax, semantics and pragmatics are considered equal contributors to shaping linguistic expressions.

Language according to Construction Grammarians consists of constructions. These are patterns that integrate form and meaning in conventionalized ways.

The main objective of Construction Grammar is to account for the extraordinary productivity of human languages. It also recognizes that language acquisition involves storing a huge amount of data that have become routinized over time.

De Saussure: the sign

The combination of form and meaning to produce constructions is an extension of the Saussurian notion of the sign. De Saussure distinguishes between the sound pattern (signifiant) of the sign and its concept/meaning (signifié). The relationship between signifiant and signifé, sound and concept, form and meaning is arbitrary and is the product of conventions. Both the signifiant and the signifié are inseparable and are the two sides of the same coin. By the same token, Construction Grammar claims that the distinction between meaning and form doesn’t reflect the true nature of language.

Some history

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

Historically, Construction Grammar was boosted by the development of Cognitive Semantics during the 1970s and 198Os. An early study of language in the light of the principles of Construction Grammar was published by Lakoff in 1977. It was a paper entitled Linguistic Gestalts (Chicago Linguistic Society, 1977.) Lakoff argued in this paper that the meaning of the whole was not a compositional function of the meaning of the parts put together locally. According to him, constructions themselves must have meanings.

Constructions and language teaching and learning

Construction Grammar has many useful insights for English teachers. It accounts for the ability of speakers to produce strings of utterances that are highly routinized and more or less predictable. As speakers or listeners, we can without any effort predict the next most likely lexical item in many strings. It is this aspect of language that accounts for the productivity of speakers.

What is more, since all pairings of form and meaning are constructions including phrase structures, idioms, words and even morphemes teachers must be alert on bringing meaning and form to serve language acquisition. For teachers grammar teaching is directed to a new dimension that has rarely been taken into account. The lexical and grammatical features of language are to be considered one thing.

Teaching constructions or grammar rules

An ongoing debate on what should be taught in language classrooms: constructions or grammar rules?

Some contend that while constructions can be scientifically proven using corpora data, one wonders whether they are teachable. For a novice teacher it is very much easier to teach grammar rules which are by definition finite than to teach the constructions of a language which are rich contextualized pieces of utterances but are arguably difficult to implement in a language classroom.

Others, however, believe that grammar rules are valuable in ELT. According to the Dogme Approach which is a conversation-driven approach to language teaching, language is holistic in nature and grammar rules won’t be of any help in language teaching. There is more to language learning than formal explanations of grammar. Providing a model of activated conversations, initiated by learners needs and characterized by teacher reformulation of key constructions and learner appropriation of these constructions, Dogme places teaching and learning at the heart of theories that see language not only as a set of rules but as an organic and holistic system involving linguistic social and contextual factors.

For such an approach using routinized sequences in conversations with some scaffolding on the part of the teacher is the best recipe for language teaching.


Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Lakoff, George. 1974. Syntactic amalgams. In Papers from the 10th regional meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, ed. Michael Galy, Robert Fox, and Anthony Bruck, 321–344. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Cours in Literary Theory: An Anthology ed. by Michael Ryan and Julie Rivkin. Blackwell Publishers. 2001. ISBN 1-4051-0696-4.

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