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ERIC Number: EJ1087560
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2016
Pages: 28
Abstractor: As Provided
ISSN: ISSN-1547-5441
Semantic Ambiguity and Syntactic Bootstrapping: The Case of Conjoined-Subject Intransitive Sentences
Pozzan, Lucia; Gleitman, Lila R.; Trueswell, John C.
Language Learning and Development, v12 n1 p14-41 2016
When learning verb meanings, learners capitalize on universal linguistic correspondences between syntactic and semantic structure. For instance, upon hearing the transitive sentence "the boy is glorping the girl," 2-year-olds prefer a two-participant event (e.g., a boy making a girl spin) over two simultaneous one-participant events (a boy and a girl separately spinning). However, 2- and 3-year-olds do not consistently show the opposite preference when hearing conjoined-subject intransitive sentences ("the boy and the girl are glorping"). We hypothesized that such difficulties arise in part from the indeterminacy of the mapping between intransitive syntax and events in the world: a conjoined-subject intransitive sentence can be matched by the one-participant event (if "glorp" means "spin"), both events ("play"), or even the two-participant event ("fight"). A preferential looking study provided evidence for this hypothesis: sentences that plausibly block most non-target interpretations for novel verbs ("the boy and the umbrella are glorping") eliminated the asymmetric difficulty associated with conjoined-subject intransitives. Thus, while conjoined-subject intransitives clearly pose some special challenges for syntax-guided word learning ("syntactic bootstrapping") by novices (Gertner & Fisher, 2012), children's difficulties with this sentence type also reflect expected performance in situations of semantic ambiguity. In discussion, we consider the interacting effects of syntactic- and message-level indeterminacy.
Psychology Press. Available from: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 325 Chestnut Street Suite 800, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Tel: 800-354-1420; Fax: 215-625-2940; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Research
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (NIH)
Authoring Institution: N/A
Identifiers - Location: Pennsylvania
Grant or Contract Numbers: 1R01HD37507