Word Grammar

A brief introduction for graduate students

by Richard Hudson

Last changed 12 April 2008

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Scope and main distinctive ideas

Main headings: lexical relations - morphology - syntax - lexical semantics - combinatorial semantics

The main idea of WG is that language is a cognitive network - a network of concepts for all the elements of a linguistic analysis such as words, phonemes, relations, meanings, etc. So:

These ideas are easiest to explain in lexical relations and in morphology, but they also apply to syntax where they are much more controversial. They are also less controversial in lexical semantics (where there is no clear orthodoxy) than in combinatorial semantics.

Lexical relations

A word is obviously and uncontroversially a node in a network of formal and semantic relations which link it to a variety of other words; for example, the word one is linked by form to the word won or wan (depending on accent) and by meaning to the word you (think of One has to laugh, meaning the same, except for style, as You have to laugh). This little network is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1


Figure 2

This figure introduces another basic idea of WG: that information is generalised by means of default inheritance down an is-a hierarchy.


Morphology illustrates three other important characteristics of WG:

Figure 3 gives a somewhat simplified analysis of English past tenses, showing the default regular pattern and the exception of went which overrides it.

Figure 3

Figure 4

The main theoretical points that we carry forward from lexical relations and morphology to syntax are:


The most controversial idea in WG syntax is that phrase structure is redundant because all its work can be done, and done better, by means of dependencies between individual words. (Coordination is an exception - see below.) For example, Figure 5 gives the complete syntactic analysis of the relations among the words in the sentence Syntactic dependencies make phrase structure redundant. (The term 'sharer' is the same as the traditional 'complement', and corresponds to XCOMP in LFG and PRED in HPSG; the idea is that structure doubles up as object of make and subject of redundant, so the word redundant 'shares' this word with make.)

Figure 5

This kind of syntactic analysis follows naturally from the general theory established so far:

These two points balance each other: the network basis allows an unlimited range of possible inter-connections, of which the grammar only sanctions a limited subset. As in other theories, the notation actually puts very few limits on possible structures, so linguistic universals are expressed as limits on what grammars can allow (e.g. rules for raising but not for lowering - see below).

Some arguments for dependencies:


Some non-arguments for phrase structure:

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 8

Lexical semantics

Lexical semantics is inseparable from the study of encyclopedic knowledge because the sense of a word such as DOG is the same everyday concept Dog which we use when dealing with dogs - recognising them, thinking about them, running from them etc. Like other concepts, this is represented as a node linked to other nodes by arrows, but the other nodes in this case are mostly not words but other non-linguistic concepts - the concepts for mammals, kennels, barking, meat, etc. Some of these concepts are sensory, e.g. schematic images, smells, sounds and so on. Figure 9 shows a few of the multiplicity of relations that, in combination, define the concept Dog. The network structure of WG makes it ideally suited to this kind of lexical semantics, where encyclopedic concepts are used directly as word-meanings.

Figure 9

Some words have meanings which may be more 'linguistic' than 'encyclopedic' in the sense that we may never use them except when speaking and listening - i.e. they involve Slobin's 'thinking for speaking'. For example, the verb RIDE refers to Riding, a super-category which embraces travel on a horse or a bicycle but not a car (compare He rode the horse/bicycle/*car to the station.). Although this concept is clearly important when we are speaking, it may not be relevant otherwise; for example, there are other languages (e.g. German) which have no word for this concept, and yet there is no reason to think that Germans 'think differently' in matters of transport.

The main features of WG lexical semantics are these:

Combinatorial semantics

Combinatorial semantics explains how dependents modify the meaning of the head word. As explained earlier, each dependent defines a different concept which is-a the sense of the head-word, and if the various dependents build on each other's definitions the result is 'semantic phrasing'. For example, if loves means X Loving Y, then loves Mary means X Loving Mary and John loves Mary means John Loving Mary, which is-a X Loving Mary and X Loving Y. (Verb meanings are given as gerunds so as to separate them from the effects of tense and mood.) Because the effect of the dependents is shown on the meaning of the head word itself, the latter carries the meaning of the entire phrase.

Each concept in the semantic structure is thus defined by its is-a link to some more general concept plus its relationship to the meaning of one dependent; for example, the concept X Loving Mary is defined by its is-a link to X Loving Y, plus its relationship to the concept Mary. This semantic relationship reflects the syntactic dependency between the words concerned, and in general there is a close match between the syntactic dependencies and the semantic relationships. However a syntactic dependent may correspond to at least three patterns in semantics:

Figure 10

The main points to notice about this semantic analysis are these:

The major gap in WG semantics is the treatment of quantifiers, where work so far has been rather tentative.

History of Word Grammar

WG has been developing since the early 1980's It grew out of 'Daughter Dependency Grammar' (Hudson 1976), which grew out of a mixture of:

Other theories

WG can be compared with the following alternative theories:
Head-driven Phrase Structure Grammar Pollard and Sag 1994 Compare with WG
Cognitive Grammar Langacker 1990 Compare with WG
Construction Grammar Goldberg 1995 Compare with WG
GB/Minimalism Chomsky  Compare with WG


Anderson, J. (1971). The grammar of case: towards a localistic theory. . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldberg, A. (1995). Constructions. A Construction Grammar Approach to Argument Structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halliday, M. (1985). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Arnold.

Hudson, R. (1971). English Complex Sentences. An introduction to systemic grammar. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Hudson, R. (1976). Arguments for a Non-transformational Grammar.
. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hudson, R. (1984). Word Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hudson, R. (1990). English Word Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hudson, R. (2001). Encyclopedia of English grammar and Word Grammar.

Langacker, R. (1990). Concept, Image and Symbol. The Cognitive Basis of Grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Pollard, C. and Sag, I. (1994). Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Tesnière, L. (1959). Éléments de syntaxe structurale. Paris: Klincksieck.

Comparison with other theories

WG Chomsky HPSG

Cognitive Grammar

Construction Grammar
Language is a cognitive network. no no yes yes
Multiple default inheritance is used. no yes yes ('schematicity') disputed
Lexical and general facts are in the same hierarchy. no yes? yes yes
Syntactic structure is separate from semantic. unclear (Is LF semantics?) no no yes
Syntax is monostratal. no yes (yes) yes
Dependencies, not PS, are basic in syntax. no maybe maybe no
Syntax allows structure sharing. yes (traces) yes no no?
Syntactic dependencies are labelled. no yes no yes
All relations are classified hierarchically. no no no no


For more information about WG

A great deal more information is available on the WG home page. This includes: