Chopping down the syntax tree: what constructions can do instead


Word order, argument structure and unbounded dependencies are among the most important topics in linguistics because they touch upon the core of the syntax-semantics interface. One question is whether ?marked? word order patterns, such as The man I talked to vs. I talked to the man, require special treatment by the grammar or not. Mainstream linguistics answers this question affirmatively: in the marked order, some mechanism is necessary for ?extracting? the man from its original argument position, and a special placement rule (e.g. topicalization) is needed for putting the constituent in clause-preceding position. This paper takes an opposing view and argues that such formal complexity is only required for analyses that are based on syntactic trees. A tree is a rigid data structure that only allows information to be shared between local nodes, hence it is inadequate for non-local dependencies and can only allow restricted word order variations. A construction, on the other hand, offers a more powerful representation device that allows word order variations ? even unbounded dependencies ? to be analyzed as the side-effect of how language users combine the same rules in different ways in order to satisfy their communicative needs. This claim is substantiated through a computational implementation of English argument structure constructions in Fluid Construction Grammar that can handle both comprehension and formulation.

Journal: Belgian Journal of Linguistics
Page: 15–38
Volume: 30