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Cognitive Linguistics

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Volume 26, Issue 3


Judgment evidence for statistical preemption: It is relatively better to vanish than to disappear a rabbit, but a lifeguard can equally well backstroke or swim children to shore

Clarice Robenalt / Adele E. Goldberg
Published Online: 2015-06-30 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2015-0004


How do speakers know when they can use language creatively and when they cannot? Prior research indicates that higher frequency verbs are more resistant to overgeneralization than lower frequency verbs with similar meaning and argument structure constraints. This result has been interpreted as evidence for conservatism via entrenchment, which proposes that people prefer to use verbs in ways they have heard before, with the strength of dispreference for novel uses increasing with overall verb frequency. This paper investigates whether verb frequency is actually always relevant in judging the acceptability of novel sentences or whether it only matters when there is a readily available alternative way to express the intended message with the chosen verb, as is predicted by statistical preemption. Two experiments are reported in which participants rated novel uses of high and low frequency verbs in argument structure constructions in which those verbs do not normally appear. Separate norming studies were used to divide the sentences into those with and without an agreed-upon preferred alternative phrasing which would compete with the novel use for acceptability. Experiment 2 controls for construction type: all target stimuli are instances of the caused-motion construction. In both experiments, we replicate the stronger dispreference for a novel use with a high frequency verb relative to its lower frequency counterpart, but only for those sentences for which there exists a competing alternative phrasing. When there is no consensus about a preferred way to phrase a sentence, verb frequency is not a predictive factor in sentences’ ratings. We interpret this to mean that while speakers prefer familiar formulations to novel ones, they are willing to extend verbs creatively if there is no readily available alternative way to express the intended meaning.

This article offers supplementary material which is provided at the end of the article.

Keywords: productivity in language; conservatism via entrenchment; statistical pre-emption; verb frequency; grammatical acceptability


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About the article

Received: 2013-11-14

Revised: 2015-01-13

Accepted: 2015-02-19

Published Online: 2015-06-30

Published in Print: 2015-08-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, Volume 26, Issue 3, Pages 467–503, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2015-0004.

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