Linguistic generalization on the basis of function and constraints on the basis of statistical preemption

Florent Perek, Adele E. Goldberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


How do people learn to use language in creative but constrained ways? Experiment 1 investigates linguistic creativity by exposing adult participants to two novel word order constructions that differ in terms of their semantics: One construction exclusively describes actions that have a strong effect; the other construction describes actions with a weaker but otherwise similar effect. One group of participants witnessed novel verbs only appearing in one construction or the other, while another group witnessed a minority of verbs alternating between constructions. Subsequent production and judgment results demonstrate that participants in both conditions extended and accepted verbs in whichever construction best described the intended message. Unlike related previous work, this finding is not naturally attributable to prior knowledge of the likely division of labor between verbs and constructions or to a difference in cue validity. In order to investigate how speakers learn to constrain generalizations, Experiment 2 includes one verb (out of 6) that was witnessed in a single construction to describe both strong and weak effects, essentially statistically preempting the use of the other construction. In this case, participants were much more lexically conservative with this verb and other verbs, while they nonetheless displayed an appreciation of the distinct semantics of the constructions with new novel verbs. Results indicate that the need to better express an intended message encourages generalization, while statistical preemption constrains generalization by providing evidence that verbs are restricted in their distribution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)276-293
Number of pages18
StatePublished - Nov 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Argument structure constructions
  • Artificial language learning
  • Generalization
  • Language acquisition
  • Novel construction learning
  • Statistical learning


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