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Cognitive Grammar in Contemporary Fiction


Chloe Harrison


Linguistic Approaches to Literature Series, N°26

Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2017

Hardcover. ix+164 p. ISBN 978-9027234155. €90


Reviewed by Vincent Hugou

Université de Tours






Cognitive Grammar in Contemporary Fiction was written by Chloe Harrison and published in 2017 by John Benjamins. It comprises eight chapters (chapter 1 is the introduction and chapter 8 the conclusion), references, appendices and indexes. This book is 136 pages of contents per se (which leads to 164 of everything). As the title suggests, the author sets out to demonstrate that the tools of Cognitive Linguistics can be successfully applied to literary analysis.

The eight chapters of the book can broadly be divided into three major parts (even though these parts do not appear as such): the first part lays down some key concepts and hints at some issues to come. The author also provides a comprehensive methodological description and substantive arguments for each of the methodological choices she has made. The second part of the book is much longer: each of its six chapters deals with an example of an application of Cognitive Linguistics as a stylistic tool for literary analysis. Chapter eight ties together all the issues raised in the book in a general conclusion.


This summary is drastically reduced to the main ideas and inevitably fails to do justice to the author’s detailed analyses and many examples.

Chapter One (introduction): Chloe Harrison first stresses the interdisciplinary character of stylistics, which is the study and interpretation of linguistic patterns in texts. Put differently, stylistics studies the relationships between linguistic choices and literary interpretation. These choices have an impact on meaning in context and influence the way that readers perceive and understand what they read.

The use of Cognitive Linguistics as a stylistic tool is the next logical step in her reasoning. The author explains that Cognitive Linguistics is usage-based and that "[l]iterature is certainly a ‘use of language’, linguistically encoded by the particular choices made by, and through the competence of, an author" [2]. Chloe Harrison also explains that she undertakes to study whole chunks of texts, even entire short stories, arguing that ‘a narrative can be seen as constituting a wider unit of construction, with poles of both form and conventional meaning’ [25], which follows Goldberg’s definition of a construction in Construction Grammar.

The material which has been selected for this book belongs to post-modern fiction, which, in its most simplistic definition, deals with subjectivity and metafictionality, that is a form of intertextual discourse in which one text makes critical commentary on another. The author makes it abundantly clear that studying post-modern fiction has been a deliberate choice to serve her illustrative purposes [3]. It now remains to be seen – and she admits it – whether her research can be replicated to other literary genres and movements, and even to non-literary genres.

The major assumptions and guiding principles of Cognitive Linguistics are introduced in Chapter Two. The bulk of the review is devoted to the works of Ronald Langacker (1987, 1990, 1991, 2008, 2009). Various other authorities, such as Croft and Cruse (2004), Goldberg (1995) or Talmy (2000) are also quoted along the way. As is traditionally expected in a literature review, other major contributions and models are covered (e.g. Text World Theory), and an accurate evaluation of them, in light of the thesis of this book, is provided.

The author then proceeds to define some of the most central concepts in Cognitive Linguistics that she intends to use for her analysis: "trajectory / landmark", "image schemas", "construal", "action chains", and "scanning", etc.

Chapters Three through Seven follow the same structure: various excerpts from post-modern fiction are selected for close analysis. Readers are first given carefully chosen information on the book the excerpt under study is taken from and on its author. The rest of the chapter is an illustration of the application of one concept of cognitive linguistics to literary analysis.

The selected texts of varying size and genre make it possible to show the variety of applications of Cognitive Linguistics studies to stylistic text analysis, at the micro- (the mere clausal level), meso- (a whole excerpt) and macro- (an entire short story) levels of literary texts. There are pieces of American and British contemporary literature from Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy), or Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, among others.

In chapters 4 and 5, Chloe Harrison shows that the study of naturally occurring literary interpretations such as online book reviews is also a promising field of research. She also illustrates the applicability and effectiveness of Cognitive Linguistics to that literary field of study.


Chloe Harrison makes it a point to be understood by her readers. Her intention is apparent by the way she treats the subject:

- the book does not assume any prior knowledge of cognitive linguistics or post-modern fiction and everything is explained and profusely illustrated with explicit examples. The author glosses each and every technical term as she goes, and also resorts to comparisons and analogies; most chapters contain diagrams and tables;

- the chapter headings of the book and its sectional divisions are self-explanatory;

- concluding remarks wrap up the main points of each chapter and make a logical transition to the new chapter;

- another strength of the book is the even balance between literary analysis and linguistic analysis. Literature does not take centre stage, nor does cognitive linguistics for that matter.

This does not seem to be, however, a ground-breaking book full of incredibly new ideas. The author admits that Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Kövesces 2002), Mental Space Theory, Text World Theory, among others, have already addressed similar issues at the crossroads of linguistics, literary studies and cognitive science. One also cannot help but wonder whether the same conclusions could have been arrived at by resorting to a more traditional stylistic analysis, as if cognitive concepts as applied to literature were just a coating over more traditional analysis. This feeling may come from the present reviewer’s background, that of a linguist, rather than a researcher in the field of literature. One last piece of criticism regards the profusion of concepts: even though chapters are written so they can largely stand alone, the book makes most sense if it is worked through sequentially since each chapter illustrates the application of a concept to literary studies, which is taken up in the next chapter, with another concept added to it; the profusion of elusive concepts can then become somewhat confusing and tends to make reading a little less enjoyable after a few chapters.

That said, the book allows for lively and fresh ways of reading literary texts and successfully shows the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach: this is a good resource for advanced undergraduate, postgraduate students, as well as (younger) researchers in the fields of literature and linguistics, who are willing to work collaboratively.



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