In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Usage-Based Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Short Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Frequency Effects
  • Exemplar Representation
  • Productivity
  • Computational Approaches

Linguistics Usage-Based Linguistics
Holger Diessel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0068


Since the beginning of modern linguistics—that is, since Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de Linguistique Générale—it has been a standard assumption of linguistic research that the study of the linguistic system, or “langue,” needs to be distinguished from the study of language use, or “parole.” In structuralist and generative linguistics, language, notably grammar, is seen as a self-contained system including discrete categories and combinatorial rules that are analyzed without reference to usage and development. This view of language has been challenged by the usage-based approach, in which grammar and usage are inextricably connected. In this approach, language is seen as a dynamic system of emergent symbolic units and flexible constraints that are shaped by general cognitive processes involved in language use. The usage-based approach has evolved from research in functional and cognitive linguistics combined with psycholinguistic research on sentence processing and language acquisition. The general goal of this approach is to develop a framework for the analysis of linguistic structure as it evolves from general cognitive processes such as categorization, analogy, automatization, and (joint) attention, which are not only relevant for language, but also for many other cognitive phenomena, such as vision, memory, and thought. In order to understand why linguistic structure is the way it is, usage-based linguists study language development, both in history and acquisition. On the assumption that language development is crucially influenced by the language user’s experience with particular linguistic elements, usage-based linguists have emphasized the importance of frequency of occurrence for the analysis of grammar. There is a wealth of recent results indicating that frequency has an enormous impact on the language users’ behavior in communication and information processing, and on the development of linguistic structure in acquisition and change.

Foundational Works

The usage-based approach has evolved from various strands of research in functional and cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistics. Of particular importance are the works of Joan Bybee and Ronald Langacker. A central theme of Bybee’s research in Bybee 1985 and Bybee 2010 is the effect of frequency on usage and development. Langacker 1987 is primarily concerned with the conceptual foundations of linguistic structure. Hopper 1987 is a programmatic paper that characterizes grammar as an “emergent system” of fluid structures that are constantly restructured and reorganized. Givón 1979 is concerned with the influence of discourse and communication on the development of grammar, both in history and acquisition. Tomasello 2003 presents a usage-based theory of first language acquisition; Goldberg 2006 is concerned with the emergence of grammatical generalizations and the nature of our grammatical knowledge; and Bates and MacWhinney 1989 proposes a psycholinguistic model of sentence processing and acquisition, the “Competition Model,” that is closely related to usage-based research in functional and cognitive linguistics. Diessel 2019 proposes a network model of grammar that integrates the various strands of usage-based research into a unified approach.

  • Bates, Elizabeth, and Brian MacWhinney. 1989. Functionalism and the Competition Model. In The crosslinguistic study of sentence processing. Edited by Brian MacWhinney and Elizabeth Bates, 3–73. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The Competition Model draws on research in functional linguistics and connectionism (see also Computational Approaches) and can be seen as a forerunner of the usage-based theory of sentence processing (see also Sentence Processing) and language acquisition (see also Acquisition of Constructions and Statistical Learning).

  • Bybee, Joan. 1985. Morphology: A study on the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/tsl.9

    This book provides a usage-based approach to morphology. It is one of the first studies that is usage-based in a narrow sense of the term. It emphasizes the importance of frequency and experience for the emergence of linguistic structure and presents a dynamic network model of morphology (see also Morphology).

  • Bybee, Joan. 2010. Language, cognition, and usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511750526

    In this book, Bybee extends her earlier research on morphology and phonology to the analysis of clause structure and develops a general framework for the usage-based analysis of grammar. For a review of this book see H. Diessel’s review article of Language, Usage and Cognition by Joan Bybee, Language 87 (2011): 830–844.

  • Diessel, Holger. 2019. The grammar network: How linguistic structure is shaped by language use. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108671040

    Building on usage-based research in linguistics and psychology, this books presents a dynamic network model of grammar in which all aspects of linguistics structures are analyzed in terms of associative connections between different linguistic elements (see also Syntactic Categories).

  • Givón, Talmy. 1979. On understanding grammar. New York: Academic Press.

    This book examines linguistic structure from a functional and developmental perspective and anticipates some central aspects of the usage-based approach.

  • Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at work: The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The book investigates the acquisition of constructions in the framework of usage-based construction grammar (see also Construction Grammar).

  • Hopper, Paul. 1987. Emergent grammar. In Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. Edited by Jon Aske, Natasha Beery, Laura Michaelis, and Hana Filip, 139–157. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society.

    A programmatic paper that suggests a radical departure from representational theories of grammar in favor of a dynamic, usage-based approach. A somewhat different version of this paper appeared in The New Psychology of Language, ed. M. Tomasello, vol. 1, Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998), 155–175.

  • Langacker, Ronald W. 1987. Foundations of cognitive grammar. Vol. 1, Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This monograph presents the theoretical foundations of cognitive grammar, a grammatical theory that plays a key role in the usage-based approach to the study of grammar.

  • Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This book provides the most comprehensive presentation of the usage-based approach to the study of first language acquisition.

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