Structural limits on verb mapping: The role of analogy in children's interpretations of sentences

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The structure of sentences in which a verb is used can provide hints about its meaning (Landau & Gleitman, 1985). One possible view of how this works appeals to innate rules linking grammatical categories with semantic ones (e.g., if subject then agent). However, this view requires considerable syntactic knowledge on the part of the child to use structural cues; The child must already be able to identify the grammatical parts of a sentence - in a particular language - in order to gain access to such rules. In this paper I propose an alternative route from structure to verb meaning and present evidence for its use. A task was devised to deny preschoolers access to linking rules like "if subject then agent," by not identifying the subject. In three experiments, children learned novel verbs in different sentence contexts. The identity of the subject and object of each sentence was hidden by using ambiguous pronouns (e.g., she and her). Thus only the number of arguments (transitive vs intransitive sentences) and their marking by preposition (to vs from) could provide cues to verb meaning. Meanings were assessed by asking children to point to the one performing the labeled action. Children's choices revealed sensitivity to both number and marking of arguments. These results suggest that very little explicit syntactic knowledge is needed to give children some structural cues to verb meaning. I suggest that a sentence structure has an abstract, relational meaning of its own, independent of the identity of its arguments, that can be applied by analogy to the child's conceptual representation of an event.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-81
Number of pages41
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 1996

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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