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Reviewed by:
  • Structuring sense, vol. 1: In name only, and: Structuring sense, vol 2: The normal course of events
  • Christopher Potts
Structuring sense, vol. 1: In name only. By Hagit Borer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 310. ISBN 0199263906. $70M.
Structuring sense, vol 2: The normal course of events. By Hagit Borer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 400. ISBN 0199263922. $49.95.

1. Introduction

In early transformational grammar, lexical items were essentially lifeless, pushed around by powerful and diverse phrase-structure rules and transformations. The balance of power began to shift, though, in the late 1970s. The phrase-structure rules became more generalized (Jackendoff 1977, Kaplan & Bresnan 1982, Gazdar et al. 1985, Kornai & Pullum 1990), the transformational component shrank (to nothing in some theories), and the lexicon took over as the primary locus of grammatical complexity and theoretical innovation. This trend continues, and it is a significant point of agreement across frameworks and outlooks (Pollard & Sag 1994, Chomsky 1995b, Joshi & Shabes 1997, Bresnan 2001, Collins 2003).1

In Structuring sense, Volumes 1 and 2, Hagit Borer proposes a reorientation of the lexicalist approaches that have dominated for the past quarter century. In B’s hands, the lexicon is once again impoverished. In fact, it is advertised as more impoverished than ever before. The open-class items (listemes) ‘do not have any formal properties, and are, in this sense, tantamount to raw material, “stuff” which is poured into the structural mould to be assigned grammatical properties’ (Vol. 1:108). The general principles are held to be simple and universal as well. Where, then, is the linguistic complexity? The above quotation begins to get at the answer. While open-class items are devoid of grammatical properties, the functional lexicon is teeming with information-rich, language-specific items. These create the ‘structural mould’ that determines the full range of grammatical properties. Listemes flesh out these structures with their underlying conceptual content, but such content is held not to be responsible for the important patterns of grammar. This is the big-picture idea that guides Structuring sense.

Volume 1, In name only, is concerned largely with nominal structure, and Volume 2, The normal course of events, focuses on verbal projections and the nature and source of aspectual distinctions.2 Though they can be read independently of each other, these two volumes, henceforth referred to collectively as SS, are tightly integrated. Each volume contains the table of contents for the other, they share a basic index (helpfully formatted to distinguish the two books), and there are numerous cross-references between the books, some of which even take the reader to specific footnotes.

SS is, by any measure, a sizable achievement. Since its publication in 2005, it has helped shape framework-level debates in syntax, and its descriptive generalizations [End Page 343] (primarily for Hebrew and English, though Italian, Chinese, and Czech play significant supporting roles) have been extensively inspected and debated.

With the present review, I try, first and foremost, to articulate and explore the theoretical underpinnings of SS. The books together weigh in at over 700 pages. This is, in itself, a barrier to understanding and exploring the true nature of the theory they work to define. Thus, the longest section of this review, §2, is devoted to chapter-by-chapter summaries that strive to draw out the major theoretical strands as they develop over the course of the two volumes. I then scrutinize this picture at a higher level (§3) and finally explore what seem to me to be some of its limitations (§4).

2. Overview

This section moves through all twenty chapters of SS, seeking to distill the major theoretical ideas down to just a few pages. I emphasize major theoretical developments over factual claims and challenges to others’ proposals. It is important to assess these aspects of the books (and §4 begins that work), but, to do it effectively, we need to understand the theory itself. Readers wishing to get a sense for the path B takes to this theory, and the tangents pursued along the way, should scan the table of contents, which is quite detailed.

Vol. 1 focuses on nominal structure, Vol. 2 on verbal...


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