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Cognitive Linguistics

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Volume 25, Issue 1 (Feb 2014)


The processing of verb-argument constructions is sensitive to form, function, frequency, contingency and prototypicality

Nick C. Ellis
  • Corresponding author
  • University of Michigan, Department of Psychology, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
  • Email:
/ Matthew Brook O'Donnell
  • University of Michigan, Communication Neuroscience Lab, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
  • Email:
/ Ute Römer
  • Georgia State University, Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL, Atlanta, GA, USA
  • Email:
Published Online: 2014-02-27 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2013-0031


We used free association and verbal fluency tasks to investigate verb-argument constructions (VACs) and the ways in which their processing is sensitive to statistical patterns of usage (verb type-token frequency distribution, VAC-verb contingency, verb-VAC semantic prototypicality). In experiment 1, 285 native speakers of English generated the first word that came to mind to fill the V slot in 40 sparse VAC frames such as `he ____ across the. . . .', `it ____ of the. . . .', etc. In experiment 2, 40 English speakers generated as many verbs that fit each frame as they could think of in a minute. For each VAC, we compared the results from the experiments with corpus analyses of verb selection preferences in 100 million words of usage and with the semantic network structure of the verbs in these VACs. For both experiments, multiple regression analyses predicting the frequencies of verb types generated for each VAC show independent contributions of (i) verb frequency in the VAC, (ii) VAC-verb contingency and (iii) verb prototypicality in terms of centrality within the VAC semantic network. VAC processing involves rich associations, tuned by verb type and token frequencies and their contingencies of usage, which interface syntax, lexis and semantics. We consider the implications for the mental representation of VACs.

Keywords: verb-argument constructions; usage; free association task; frequency; contingency; semantic prototypicality; tallying; implicit learning; construction grammar

About the article

Published Online: 2014-02-27

Published in Print: 2014-02-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2013-0031. Export Citation

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