Syntax and Semantics:
A Constructional Approach

Linguistics/Anthropology 402
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer

Course Information Sheet
Fall 2004

Time TTh 9:25-10:40
Place Herring Hall 125
Office Herring Hall 209
Tel. (348)-6225,
Office hours: TTh 10:45-11:50 and by appointment

In this course we will explore the relationship between syntax and semantics in human language. The approach taken will be constructional: we assume that all human languages have syntactic constructions, or form-meaning pairings larger than the word level. Some examples: The transitive clause construction; the Way construction (make one's way through the room), ); the Ditransitive construction (I gave her the money); and numerous semi-idiomatic constructions. It will also be data-oriented: we will look at examples of constructions in usage data, and learn how to find and analyze constructions.

Some issues treated by the course:

  • Nature of constructions, particularly syntactic constructions
  • Relation between syntax and semantics
  • Relation of lexicon and syntax
  • Lexical knowledge vs. syntactic knowledge
  • Constructional meaning
  • Relation of constructional knowledge to: learning; language processing; perception, attention, memory; other cognitive capacities
  • The nature of usage data
  • Relation of corpus data to other kinds of linguistic data
  • Relation of constructions and context
  • How constructions arise and change
  • How children acquire constructions
  • The course builds to a certain extent on Ling 315, Introduction to Semantics, which focuses on lexical semantics: I will refer to lexical semantics in treating some of the issues above. It also refers to the subject matter of Ling 416, Language Universals and Typology, which examines specific basic constructions across languages. Neither course is an actual prerequisite. While more background is always more useful, students will be able to learn about constructions without having had these courses. The issues above include the relation of constructions to other kinds of symbolic elements such as words, which will make it possible to follow without that background. In this course, we will not learn the specifics of a particular constructional theory, although some of the readings will make reference to such theories.

    In the course of the semester, undergraduates and graduate students should come up with some systematic linguistic data, i.e. they should be able to find at least some basic patterns in the data and discuss them. We will have a searching/sorting program available for this purpose (MonoConc Pro). Graduate students will be expected to learn and understand more of the theoretical underpinnings of constructional analysis than undergraduates. Their paper should address some theoretical issue(s) in addition to providing a basic data analysis. In the spring, I will be giving a seminar on Constructional Syntax, which will move into some specific constructional theories such as Construction Grammar and Cognitive Grammar. The spring course will be most appropriate for graduate students who have taken this course. Students can continue on the same construction they identified in this course at a deeper level of analysis, or choose a different construction or constructions to analyze.

    Course Requirements

  • Participation in class analyses; contribution of data periodically
  • Readings (no textbook, but selected readings)
  • Paper proposal before October 21 (end of Week 9)
  • Short oral presentation based on your own data search (ca. mid. November)
  • Final paper (minimally data analysis and interpretation, cf. above) due Dec. 2.
  • Readings

    The readings will be linked to the course page accessible to Rice students. I am communicating with students about how to access the course page and how to make the list of readings, with complete references, publicly accessible.

    Reading 1 for Tuesday August 31 will be Chapter 5 of David Lee, Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. It should be acccessible to Rice students as a .pdf file from the above page. If you can't access it, please let me know.

    The second and third readings will be by Adele Goldberg and by Michael Israel, both about the WAY construction.

    Following that we will move into some chapters from Michael Tomasello's Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Approach to Language Acquisition

    Other readings (tentative) by Boas and by Gries and Stefanowitsch.


    If you have a documented disability that will impact your work in this class, please contact me to discuss your needs. Additionally, you should register with the Disability Support Services Office in the Ley Student Center.

    Last modified 28 Aug 04

    © 2004 Suzanne Kemmer