A-adjectives, statistical preemption, and the evidence: Reply to Yang (2015)

Adele E. Goldberg, Jeremy K. Boyd

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7 Scopus citations


A certain class of English adjectives known as a-adjectives resist appearing attributively as prenominal modifiers (e.g. ??the afraid boy, ??the asleep man). Boyd & Goldberg 2011 had offered experimental evidence suggesting that the dispreference is learnable on the basis of categorization and statistical preemption: repeatedly witnessing predicative formulations in contexts in which the attributive form would otherwise be appropriate. The present reply addresses Yang’s (2015) counterproposal for how a-adjectives are learned and his instructive critique of statistical preemption. The counterproposal is that children receive evidence that a-adjectives behave like locative particles in occurring with certain adverbs such as far and right. However, in an analysis of the 450-million-word COCA corpus, the suggested adverbial evidence is virtually nonexistent (e.g. *far alive, *straight afraid). In fact, these adverbs occur much more frequently with typical adjectives (e.g. far greater, straight alphabetical). Furthermore, relating a-adjectives to locative particles does not provide evidence of the restriction, because locative particles themselves can appear as prenominal modifiers (the down payment, the outside world). The critique of statistical preemption is based on a 4.3-million-word corpus analysis of child-directed speech that suggests that children cannot amass the requisite evidence before they are three years old. While we clarify which sorts of data are relevant to statistical preemption, we concur that the required data is relatively sparsely represented in the input. In fact, recent evidence suggests that children are not actually cognizant of the restriction until they are roughly ten years old, an indication that input of an order of magnitude more than 4.3 million words may be required.We conclude that a combination of categorization and statistical preemption is consistent with the available evidence of how the restriction on a-adjectives is learned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e184-e197
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • A-adjectives
  • Categorization
  • Statistical preemption


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