Notes on prototypicality and grammar writing

Rosch’s (1978) emphasizes that the prototypical instantiations of a given category are maximally distinct from each other. She states,

To increase the distinctiveness and flexibility of categories, categories tend to become defined in terms of prototypes or prototypical instances that contain the attributes most representatives of items inside and least representative of terms outside the category (1978, 30).

This is essentially a double characterization in that prototypicality is here defined both positively (most representative attributes) and negatively (least representative attributes). One implication of this definition is the fact that when we are dealing with two or more contrastive categories, non-prototypical usage of one of those categories will likely involve some of the prototypical attributes of that category, but also some prototypical attributes of another category–for example, distinguishing between what is a noun and what is a verb.*

The logical result of this fact is that it may be entirely possible for two contrasting categories to reflect near synonymy in some discourse contexts—contexts where the most representative attributes of their given category are dramatically downplayed. These sorts of non-contrasts between grammatical categories are prototype effects that arise from human cognition.

These facts are derived not merely from how categorization works for a limited set of items (e.g. lexemes), but how it functions for human cognition and reasoning in general. That is to say, all categorization is prototypical categorization. It is left to reason, then, that we ought to organize our grammar descriptions along similar lines, in a manner that most closely parallels basic principles of human cognition. A grammar that takes the nature of human categorization seriously will prioritize determining what the most representative and least representative attributes of a given grammatical category are and then also take those attributes as the standard for evaluating grammatical contrasts in the language description. The meaning of a given grammatical category must be grounded in most exemplar uses of that category. It is from here and here alone that non-prototypical usage may then be adequately evaluated and explained.**


*This, incidentally, is precisely the point of Hopper and Thompson (1984, 710), where they argue that the categorization of lexical items within a part-of-speech system should be grounded in discourse structure and usage.

**This refers, of course, to the formal grammatical description. In the analysis itself, evaluating what is and what is not prototypical usage is part of the process.


Works Cited:

8 thoughts on “Notes on prototypicality and grammar writing

Add yours

  1. αμεν και αμεν. I’ve been keeping this in mind the past few days as I’ve been trying to sort out the differences between appositional and continuative relative clauses. Kinda got some relief today as I realized that the tokens that were hanging me up were ones that were non-prototypical and extremely fuzzy examples. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Mike. Does Rosch say anything about the process that influences when/where a category is ‘created’? Because this quote “the attributes most representatives of items inside and least representative of terms outside” presupposes that there was already a perceived need in existence that moved the social context to have a category in a part of the field.

    1. Hi Dirk, the question of how categories are created is actually a fundamental part of her life’s work, but her focus has always been on natural categories rather than the sorts of categories that we find it published grammars. My goal is to bridge that gap by using the theories of categorization she and others have developed as a starting point for my own grammar writing.

    1. I haven’t encountered any grammars that have done this, at least, not yet. Carl Bache comes close in his work on tense and aspect and (if I remember correctly) a bit on relatives and adjectives, too. He has a grammar of English, too, that I’ve been watching to give a read. It’s sitting a few feet from me waiting patiently.

      And actually, in that context, these are conclusions about grammar writing that I came to when deciding how to best go about using Bache’s proposed typology of grammatical contrasts in the context of linguistic categorization a la prototype theory.

      1. Thanks for your reply. I’m trying my hand at a little grammar writing and I’m looking for some good models. Any recommendations or suggestions would be appreciated!

        1. Is there ever such thing as “a little grammar writing”? 😉

          If I see anything, I’ll send it you. I’m in the same boat. My approach thus far has been to focus on typological articles & monographs for a given subject and use that as a starting point.

          Also: Tom Payne has an edited volume on grammar writing that’s really good.

        2. Thanks, Mike, for the tip on Payne’s book, Perspectives on Grammar Writing. I’m still going through the contributions, but the one on “growing” a grammar articulates a nice way to go about it. Little by little.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: