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Cognition. 2008 Jan;106(1):87-129. Epub 2007 Feb 20.

The effect of verb semantic class and verb frequency (entrenchment) on children's and adults' graded judgements of argument-structure overgeneralization errors.

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The University of Liverpool, School of Psychology, Eleanor Rathbone Building, Bedford Street South, Liverpool L697ZA, UK.


Participants (aged 5-6 yrs, 9-10 yrs and adults) rated (using a five-point scale) grammatical (intransitive) and overgeneralized (transitive causative)(1) uses of a high frequency, low frequency and novel intransitive verb from each of three semantic classes [Pinker, S. (1989a). Learnability and cognition: The acquisition of argument structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press]: "directed motion" (fall, tumble), "going out of existence" (disappear, vanish) and "semivoluntary expression of emotion" (laugh, giggle). In support of Pinker's semantic verb class hypothesis, participants' preference for grammatical over overgeneralized uses of novel (and English) verbs increased between 5-6 yrs and 9-10 yrs, and was greatest for the latter class, which is associated with the lowest degree of direct external causation (the prototypical meaning of the transitive causative construction). In support of Braine and Brooks's [Braine, M.D.S., & Brooks, P.J. (1995). Verb argument strucure and the problem of avoiding an overgeneral grammar. In M. Tomasello & W. E. Merriman (Eds.), Beyond names for things: Young children's acquisition of verbs (pp. 352-376). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum] entrenchment hypothesis, all participants showed the greatest preference for grammatical over ungrammatical uses of high frequency verbs, with this preference smaller for low frequency verbs, and smaller again for novel verbs. We conclude that both the formation of semantic verb classes and entrenchment play a role in children's retreat from argument-structure overgeneralization errors.

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