last updated 4 July 2005



Historical background to Word Grammar

Word Grammar is a theory of language structure which Richard (= Dick) Hudson has been building since the early 1980's. (From now on, `I' = Dick Hudson.) It is still changing in detail, but the main ideas are still the same. These ideas themselves developed out of two other theories that I had tried: Systemic Grammar (now known as Systemic Functional Grammar), due to Michael Halliday, and then Daughter-Dependency Grammar, my own invention. My first book was the first attempt to write a generative (explicit) version of Systemic Grammar (`English Complex Sentences: An introduction to Systemic Grammar', North Holland, 1971); and my second book was about Daughter-Dependency Grammar (`Arguments for a Non- transformational Grammar', Chicago UP, 1976). As the latter title indicates, Chomsky's transformational grammar was very much `in the air', and both books accepted his goal of generative grammar but offered other ideas about sentence structure as alternatives to his mixture of function-free phrase structure plus transformations. In the late 1970's I abandoned Daughter- Dependency Grammar (in spite of a rave review by Paul Schachter in Language 54, 348-76!) partly because of a preoccupation with sociolinguistics (which led to a textbook in 1980), and partly in order to explore various general ideas that didn't come together into a coherent `theory' until about 1982. This was Word Grammar, first described in the 1984 book `Word Grammar'. Since then the details have been worked out much better, and there is now a workable notation.

The main ideas of Word Grammar

Here are the main ideas, together with an indication of where they came from.
  • It is monostratal - only one structure per sentence, no transformations. (From Systemic Grammar)
  • It uses word-word dependencies - e.g. a noun is the subject of a verb. (From John Anderson and other users of Dependency Grammmar, via Daughter Dependency Grammar; a reaction against Systemic Grammar where word-word dependencies are mediated by the features of the mother phrase.)
  • It does not use phrase structure - e.g. it does not recognise a noun phrase as the subject of a clause, though these phrases are implicit in the dependency structure. (This is the main difference between Daughter Dependency Grammar and Word Grammar. I don't know where it came from.)
  • It shows grammatical relations/functions by explicit labels - e.g. `subject' and `object'. (From Systemic Grammar)
  • It uses features only for inflectional contrasts - e.g. tense, number but not transitivity. (A reaction against excessive use of features in both Systemic Grammar and current Transformational Grammar.)
  • It uses default inheritance, as a very general way of capturing the contrast between `basic' or `underlying' patterns and `exceptions' or `transformations' - e.g. by default, English words follow the word they depend on, but exceptionally subjects precede it; particular cases `inherit' the default pattern unless it is explicitly overridden by a contradictory rule. (From Artificial Intelligence)
  • It views concepts as prototypes rather than `classical' categories that can be defined by necessary and sufficient conditions. All characteristics (i.e. all links in the network) have equal status, though some may for pragmatic reasons be harder to override than others. (From Lakoff and early Cognitive Linguistics , supported by work in sociolinguistics)
  • It presents language as a network of knowledge, linking concepts about words, their meanings, etc. - e.g. "dog" is linked to the meaning `dog', to the form /dog/, to the word-class `noun', etc. (From Lamb's Stratificational Grammar, now known as Neurocognitive Linguistics)
  • In this network there are no clear boundaries between different areas of knowledge - e.g. between `lexicon' and `grammar', or between `linguistic meaning' and `encyclopedic knowledge'. (From early Cognitive Linguistics - and the facts!)
  • In particular, there is no clear boundary between `internal' and `external' facts about words, so a grammar should be able to incorporate sociolinguistic facts - e.g. the speaker of "sidewalk" is an American. (From sociolinguistics)

Introductory reading

If you're a real beginner in linguistics, you might like to look at a free on-line introduction to linguistics by Michael Gasser which takes a cognitive and functionalist view that I feel comfortable with.

A special introduction to WG for graduate students of linguistics

All the books about the theory are by me (Dick Hudson):

Word Grammar (Blackwell, 1984)

First attempt to think through the consequences of abandoning phrase-structure in favour of dependency structure. A research monograph, rather dated now.
English Word Grammar (Blackwell, 1990)
A more ambitious attempt to integrate these ideas with ideas about default inheritance and processing, and to build a wide-coverage grammar of English. Considered pretty tough by students! 400+ pages, now out of print. For more information and downloadable material, click here.
Word Meaning (Routledge, 1995)
A very elementary introduction to lexical semantics for first-year undergraduates, but it uses a lot of WG ideas (and notations).
Sociolinguistics (2nd edition; Cambridge University Press, 1996)
An undergraduate textbook covering the whole of sociolinguistics, but from a very WG perspective (which nobody seems to have noticed!).
English Grammar (Routledge, 1998)
Another very elementary text in the same series as `Word Meaning'. It takes students through all the basic structures of English, using WG ideas and notation but with very little discussion of the theory itself. By the end of the one-term course, students can do a partial syntactic analysis of virtually every word in any English text.
Perhaps the most accessible source of detailed information is the Encyclopedia of English Grammar and Word Grammar, which is about 140 pages single-spaced including diagrams and can be used in hypertext mode. It includes a sample analysed text (the first 100 words from Stephen Pinker's `Language Instinct'), which illustrates the analytical system described in the encyclopedia. I can supply a free paper copy just of the diagrams if these won't print on your system.

Another fairly accessible site is the set of handouts for a course on Dependency Grammar (especially WG) that I gave in August 2000 at a summer school for research students (ESSLLI). Somewhat longer but at a lower level are the handouts for my most recent (spring 2001) undergraduate course on WG.

The following are short introductory articles about WG.

Full WG bibliography

Most of the other publications are research articles. Those by me can be found via my home page, including some recent ones that are available by ftp. There is a full bibliography which can be downloaded.

The WG list and discussion group

We have a collective email existence: wordgrammar@ucl.ac.uk. You can subscribe to this list on the JISCMAIL web site for the WG list. If you have problems, email either me or And Rosta, who set the list up and runs it.

Sometimes the debate seems almost non-stop - if this worries you, be assured that it will die down eventually, and meanwhile you're very welcome to join in.

Alternative theories and web sites

There are aUse of uninitialized value in concatenation (.) or string at E:\listplex\SYSTEM\SCRIPTS\filearea.cgi line 455, line 225. dozen or so theories of language in general, and of grammar in particular (and even more particularly, of syntax with or without semantics). As explained in the outline of the main ideas, most of the ideas in WG can be found in other theories, though no other theory offers this particular combination. For those who want to explore alternatives, here is a list of what I see as the main alternatives to WG. Where the theory concerned has a web site I supply a cross-link. (Please tell me of any web-sites that I've omitted.)

Tools for using WG (and other) networks

Networks are too complicated to work by hand, so we need software tools. So far (mid 2005) we have two:

  • WGNet++ - displays a network on screen and allows you to edit it and explore it. Built 2002-4, no longer developing.
  • Babbage - a growing suite of software for exploiting a network (WG or other) using spreading activation, default inheritance and binding. (For access, apply to me.)

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