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Construction Grammar in action: the English Constructicon project

Florent Perek


This is the video of the talk given by Florent Perek on Thursday, December 17

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1In a radical departure from traditional and formal approaches to grammatical description, construction grammar takes the view that grammar is best described as a network of form-meaning pairs at various levels of generality. This approach has been very successful in various areas of research, including for instance language acquisition (Tomasello 2003, Goldberg 2019) and language change (Traugott & Trousdale 2013), and it has also made its way into more applied fields, such as language pedagogy (De Knop & Gilquin 2016) or natural language processing (Steels 2011).

2Early examples of constructions, such as the ditransitive construction, the caused-motion construction, or the way-construction (Goldberg 1995), have been offered as compelling illustrations of the central tenets of the theory. However, the range of constructions documented by construction grammar studies is still relatively limited, even in such an over-studied language as English. Many construction grammarians have tended to favour a “butterfly-collecting” approach, focussing primarily on patterns with unusual semantic and grammatical properties, but they have comparatively dealt less with common, mundane, and more predictable constructions, and it remains to be seen to what extent these constructions can equally be described in terms of form-meaning pairs. This “butterfly-collecting” attitude, and more generally the lack of larger-scale descriptive work, presents construction grammar with two problems. First, the descriptive bias towards idiosyncratic patterns has left the approach open to criticism, and has led it to be mostly perceived as primarily geared towards idioms, or the ’periphery’ of grammar, especially from outside cognitive linguistics, with the ’core’ grammar of common and regular patterns still seen as the province of formal approaches. Second, the lack of empirical coverage limits the applicability of the approach in applied linguistics, in particular for teaching purposes: if constructions are to be adopted more widely as a teaching approach, teachers and learners need descriptions of what constructions there are in a given language, especially the constructions that are most useful to language users.

3Against this backdrop, in this talk I report on some early work on our English Constructicon project, one of the several constructicography projects currently going on to address this gap and provide large-scale descriptive research on constructions in various languages (Lyngfelt et al. 2018). Drawing on previous work from corpus linguistics and lexical semantics, our ultimate goal is to build a comprehensive inventory of grammatical constructions of the English language, following the principles and network approach of construction grammar (Perek & Pattern 2019). In the first phase of the project, we focus on constructions of the verb (aka argument structure constructions), but in the future we also aim to cover noun and adjective constructions. The English Constructicon is based on the COBUILD Grammar Patterns series (Francis et al. 1996, 1998), which provides an exhaustive list of English complementation patterns and the lexical items occurring in them. We follow a radically bottom-up approach in defining constructions: we first start from the entire list of verbs in a given pattern, and we use lexical semantic information from the FrameNet database (frames and frame-to-frame relations) and from COBUILD itself (verb groups) to posit narrow generalisations over verb meanings (or more precisely, the meaning these verbs take in the construction). We then use these groups to posit generalisations at higher levels, to arrive at a full inheritance hierarchy of constructions for each pattern.

4Using the “V that”, “V at n”, “V n with n”, and “V n n” patterns as examples, I illustrate how the English Constructicon data validate the constructional approach for more common and regular patterns than those typically described, while also capturing some of the key insights of the theory. First, there are intermediate levels of description in the inheritance hierarchy that allow us to strike a balance between the lowest level of the lexical item, which has a high degree of precision and detail but no predictive power, and the highest level of the construction as a whole, which is usually too broad to made reliable predictions about the distribution of the construction. Second, the constructional hierarchy can also capture idiosyncratic behaviour at any level of generality, both in form and in meaning. In particular, this allows us to describe as constructions patterns that would otherwise be treated as idioms or collocations and listed separately from the grammatical description (e.g. deal someone cardsbid someone farewell, in the “V n n” construction’s hierarchy). These and other features make the constructional approach extremely attractive for the description of any kind of pattern, which has far-reaching implications for applied linguistics, especially in language teaching.


Florent Perek
Crédits : Florent Perek

6Click to enlarge.

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De Knop, S. & Gilquin, G. (eds.) 2016. Applied construction grammar. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Francis, G., Hunston, S. & Manning, E. 1996. Collins COBUILD Grammar Patterns 1: Verbs. London: HarperCollins.

Francis, G., Hunston, S. & Manning, E. 1998. Collins COBUILD Grammar Patterns 2: Nouns and Adjectives. London: HarperCollins.

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

Goldberg, A. E. 2019. Explain Me This. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lyngfelt, B., Borin, L., Ohara, K. & Torrent, T. (eds.) 2018. Constructicography: Constructicon development across languages. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Perek, F. & Patten, A. 2019. Towards an English Constructicon using patterns and frames. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 24(3), 354–384.

Steels, L. 2011. Design patterns in Fluid Construction Grammar. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Tomasello, M. 2003. Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Traugott, E. C. & Trousdale, G. 2013. Constructionalization and Constructional Changes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Florent Perek, « Construction Grammar in action: the English Constructicon project »CogniTextes [En ligne], Volume 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2021, consulté le 01 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Florent Perek

University of Birmingham

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