On the semantic content of subcategorization frames

Cynthia Fisher, Henry Gleitman, Lila R. Gleitman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper investigates relations between the meanings of verbs and the syntactic structures in which they appear. This investigation is motivated by the enigmas as to how children discover verb meanings. Well-known problems with unconstrained induction of word meanings from observation of world circumstances suggest that additional constraints or sources of information are required. If there exist strong and reliable parallels between the structural and semantic properties of verbs, then an additional source of information about verb meanings is reliably present in each verb's linguistic context. Five experiments are presented which investigate the following hypothesis regarding the scope of these relations: The closer any two verbs in their semantic structure, the greater the overlap should be in their licensed syntactic structures. To investigate this hypothesis, data of two kinds were collected from different groups of subjects: (a) One group of subjects was asked to judge the semantic relatedness of verbs by selecting the semantic outlier in triads presented to them. (b) A second group of subjects was asked to judge the grammaticality of these same verbs in a large range of syntactic environments. These two types of data were then compared to assess the degree of correspondence in the two partitionings (syntactic and semantic) of the verb set. The findings, overall, support the view that the syntax of verbs is a quite regular, although complex, projection from their semantics. In conclusion, we discuss the kinds of features that are formally marked in syntactic structure and relate these to the problem of verb-vocabulary acquisition in young children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)331-392
Number of pages62
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1991
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence

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