Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

Cognitive Linguistics

Editor-in-Chief: Newman, John / Divjak, Dagmar

4 Issues per year

IMPACT FACTOR 2016: 2.135

CiteScore 2017: 1.62

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2017: 1.032
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2017: 1.930

See all formats and pricing
More options …
Volume 28, Issue 2


Usage-based linguistics and the magic number four

Clarence Green
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of English Language and Literature, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
Published Online: 2017-03-17 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2015-0112


Miller’s (1956, The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review 63(2). 81–97) working memory (WM) capacity of around seven items, plus or minus two, was never found by usage-based linguists to be a recurrent pattern in language. Thus, it has not figured prominently in cognitive models of grammar. Upon reflection, this is somewhat unusual, since WM has been considered a fundamental cognitive domain for information processing in psychology, so one might have reasonably expected properties such as capacity constraints to be reflected in language use and structures derived from use. This paper proposes that Miller’s (1956) number has not been particularly productive in usage-based linguistics because it turns out to have been an overestimate. A revised WM capacity has now superseded it within cognitive science, a “magic number four plus or minus one” (Cowan 2001, The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24(1). 87–185). This paper suggests, drawing on evidence from spoken language corpora and multiple languages, that a range of linguistic structures and patterns align with this revised capacity estimate, unlike Miller’s (1956), ranging from phrasal verbs, idioms, n-grams, the lengths of intonation units and some abstract grammatical properties of phrasal categories and clause structure.

Keywords: usage-based linguistics; working memory; corpus linguistics; cognitive grammar; psycholinguistics


  • Aboitiz, Francisco, Ricardo R. García, Conrado Bosman & Enzo Brunetti. 2006. Cortical memory mechanisms and language origins. Brain and Language 98. 40–56.Google Scholar

  • Allen, Shanley & Heike Schröder. 2003. Preferred argument structure in early Inuktitut spontaneous speech data. In John Du Bois, Lorriane Kumpf & William Ashby (eds.), Preferred argument structure: Grammar as architecture for function, 301–338. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Arnon, Inbal & Neal Snider. 2010. More than words: Frequency effects for multi-word phrases. Journal of Memory and Language 62. 67–82.Google Scholar

  • Baddeley, Alan. 2003. Working memory and language: An overview. Journal of Communication Disorders 36. 189–208.Google Scholar

  • Baddeley, Alan. 2007. Working memory, thought, and action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Baddeley, Alan, Neil Thomson & Mary Buchanan. 1975. Word length and the structure of short-term memory. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 14(6). 575–589.Google Scholar

  • Bannard, Colin & Elena Lieven. 2012. Formulaic language in L1 acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 32. 3–16.Google Scholar

  • Bannard, Colin & Danielle Matthews. 2008. Stored word sequences in language learning the effect of familiarity on children’s repetition of four-word combinations. Psychological Science 19. 241–248.Google Scholar

  • Bergen, Benjamin. 2012. Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. Philadelphia: Basic Books.Google Scholar

  • Biber, Douglas, Susan Conrad & Vivian Cortes. 2004. If you look at…: Lexical bundles in university teaching and textbooks. Applied Linguistics 25(3). 371–405.Google Scholar

  • BNC – The British National Corpus, version 3 (BNC XML edn.). 2007. Distributed by Oxford University Computing Services on behalf of the BNC Consortium. http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/p

  • Bor, Daniel. 2016. Advances in the scientific investigation of consciousness. In Martin Monti & Walter G. Sannita (eds.), Brain function and responsiveness in disorders of consciousness, 13–24. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar

  • Broadbent, Donald. 1975. The magic number seven after fifteen years. In Alan Kennedy & Alan Wilkes (eds.), Studies in long-term memory, 2–18. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar

  • Bybee, Joan. 2006. From usage to grammar: The mind’s response to repetition. Language 82(4). 711–733.Google Scholar

  • Bybee, Joan. 2010. Language, usage and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Chafe, Wallace. 1994. Discourse, consciousness, and time: The flow and displacement of conscious experience in speaking and writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar

  • Chafe, Wallace & Jane Danielewicz. 1987. Properties of spoken and written language. In Rosalind Horowitz & S. Jay Samuels (eds.), Comprehending oral and written language, 83–113. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar

  • Clahsen, Harald & Claudia Felser. 2006. Grammatical processing in language learners. Applied Psycholinguistics 27(1). 3–42.Google Scholar

  • Collins, Peter & Carmella Hollo. 2009. English grammar: An introduction. Chippenham: Palgrave McMillian.Google Scholar

  • Colston, Herbert. 2008. A new look at common ground: Memory, egocentrism, and joint meaning. In Istvan Kecskes & Jacob Mey (eds.), Intention, common ground and the egocentric speaker-hearer, 151–187. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.Google Scholar

  • Conklin, Kathy & Norbert Schmitt. 2012. The processing of formulaic language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 32. 45–61.Google Scholar

  • Cowan, Nelson. 2001. The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24(1). 87–185.Google Scholar

  • Cowan, Nelson, Emily Elliott, Scott Saults, Candice Morey, Sam Mattox, Anna Hismjatullina & Andrew Conway. 2005. On the capacity of attention: Its estimation and its role in working memory and cognitive aptitudes. Cognitive Psychology 51(1). 42–100.Google Scholar

  • Cowan, Nelson, Candice Morey, Zhijian Chen, Amanda Gilchrist & Scott Saults. 2008. Theory and measurement of working memory capacity limits. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 49. 49–104.Google Scholar

  • Denison, David. 2004. English historical syntax: Verbal constructions. London: Longman.Google Scholar

  • Downing, Angela. 2015. English grammar: A university course. London: Routledge.Google Scholar

  • Du Bois, John, Wallace Chafe, Charles Meyer, Sandra Thompson & Nii Martey. 2005. Santa Barbara corpus of spoken American English, Parts 1–4. Philadelphia: Linguistic Data Consortium.Google Scholar

  • Du Bois, John, Stephan Schuetze-Coburn, Susanna Cumming & Danae Paolino. 1993. Outline of discourse transcription. In Jane Edwards & Martin Lampert (eds.), Talking data: Transcription and coding in discourse research, 45–89. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar

  • Ellis, Nick. 2001. Memory for language. In Catherine Doughty & Paul Robinson (eds.). Cognition and second language instruction, 33–68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Ellis, Nick & Susan Sinclair. 1996. Working memory in the acquisition of vocabulary and syntax: Putting language in good order. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 49(1). 234–250.Google Scholar

  • Ericcson, K. Anders, William Chase & Steven Faloon. 1980. Acquisition of a memory skill. Science 208. 1181–1182.Google Scholar

  • Evans, Nicholas & Stephen C. Levinson. 2009. The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(5). 429–448.Google Scholar

  • Evans, Vyvyan. 2014. The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Gathercole, Susan & Tracy Alloway. 2008. Working memory and learning: A practical guide for teachers. Sage: London.Google Scholar

  • Gathercole, Susan, Leanne Brown & Susan Pickering. 2003. Working memory assessments at school entry as longitudinal predictors of national curriculum attainment levels. Educational and Child Psychology 20(3). 109–122.Google Scholar

  • Gazzaniga, Michael. 2015. Tales from both sides of the brain: A life in neuroscience. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar

  • Gernsbacher, Morton Ann & Talmy Givón (eds.). 1995. Coherence in spontaneous text, Vol. 31. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Gilchrist, Amanda, Nelson Cowan & Moshe Naveh-Benjamin. 2008. Working memory capacity for spoken sentences decreases with adult ageing: Recall of fewer but not smaller chunks in older adults. Memory 16(7). 773–787.Google Scholar

  • Givón, Talmy. 1984. Prolegomena to discourse-pragmatics. Journal of Pragmatics 8(4). 489–516.Google Scholar

  • Givón, Talmy. 2002. Bio-linguistics: The Santa Barbara lectures. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Givón, Talmy. 2012. The adaptive approach to grammar. In Bernd Heine & Heiko Narrog (eds.), The Oxford handbook of linguistic analysis, 27–51. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Gobet, Fernand & Gary Clarkson. 2004. Chunks in expert memory: Evidence for the magical number four … or is it two? Memory 12(6). 732–747.Google Scholar

  • Goldberg, Adele. 2006. Constructions at work: The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Graff, David & Steven Bird. 2000. Many uses, many annotations for large speech corpora: Switchboard and TDT as case studies. In Maria Gavrilidou, George Carayannis, Stelios Piperidis, Stella Markantonatou & Gregory Steinhauer (eds.), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, 427–433. Athens: LREC.Google Scholar

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2003. Explaining the ditransitive person-role constraint: A usage-based approach. Constructions 2. 1–71.Google Scholar

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2008. Frequency vs. iconicity in explaining grammatical asymmetries. Cognitive Linguistics 19(1). 1–33Google Scholar

  • Henry, Lucy. 2012. The development of working memory in children. London: SAGE.Google Scholar

  • Hills, Peter & Michael Pake. 2016. Cognitive psychology for dummies. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar

  • Hilpert, Martin. 2014. Construction grammar and its application to English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar

  • Huddleston, Rodeny & Geoffrey Pullum 2002. The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Hurford, James. 2007. The origins of meaning: Language in the light of evolution, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Ibbotson, Paul & Michael Tomasello. 2009. Prototype constructions in early language acquisition. Language and Cognition 1(1). 59–85.Google Scholar

  • Jackendoff, Ray. 2003. Précis of foundations of language: Brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26(6). 651–665.Google Scholar

  • Kelly, Barbara, Gillian Wigglesworth, Rachel Nordlinger & Joe Blythe. 2014. The acquisition of polysynthetic languages. Language and Linguistics Compass 8(2). 51–64.Google Scholar

  • Kuhl, Patricia. 2004. Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5. 831–843.Google Scholar

  • Lakoff, George. 2009. The neural theory of metaphor. In Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. (ed.), The Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought, 17–38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Langacker, Ronald. 2009. Cognitive (construction) grammar. Cognitive Linguistics 20(1). 167–176.Google Scholar

  • Levelt, Willem, Ardi Roelofs & Antje Meyer. 1999. A theory of lexical access in speech production. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22(1). 1–38.Google Scholar

  • Liu, Dilin. 2003. The most frequently used spoken American English idioms: A corpus analysis and its implications. Tesol Quarterly 37(4). 671–700.Google Scholar

  • MacWhinney, Brian. 2005. A unified model of language acquisition. In Judith Kroll & Annette De Groot (eds.), Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches, 39–67. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Mahlberg, Michaela, Kathy Conklin & Marie-Josée Bisson. 2014. Reading Dickens’s characters: Employing psycholinguistic methods to investigate the cognitive reality of patterns in texts. Language and Literature 23(4). 369–388.Google Scholar

  • Martin, Joel, Howard Johnson, Benoit Farley & Anna Maclachlan. 2003. Aligning and using an English-Inuktitut parallel corpus. In Proceedings of the HLT-NAACL 2003 Workshop on Building and using parallel texts: Data driven machine translation and beyond, 115–118. Edmonton: Association for Computational Linguistics.Google Scholar

  • Martinez, Ron & Norbert Schmitt. 2012. A phrasal expressions List. Applied Linguistics 33(3). 299–320.Google Scholar

  • Miller, George. 1956. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review 63(2). 81–97.Google Scholar

  • Oberauer, Klaus. 2005. Control of the contents of working memory – a comparison of two paradigms and two age groups. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 31(4). 714–728.Google Scholar

  • Pinker, Steven. 1989. Learnability and cognition: The acquisition of argument structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Pothos, Emmanuel. 2007. Theories of artificial grammar learning. Psychological Bulletin 133(2). 227–244.Google Scholar

  • Pothos, Emmanuel & Patrick Juola. 2001. Linguistic structure and short term memory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24(1). 138–139.Google Scholar

  • Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartik, 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.Google Scholar

  • Robinson-Riegler, Bridget & Gregory Robinson-Riegler. 2008. Cognitive psychology: Applying the science of the mind. London: Pearson.Google Scholar

  • Sampson, Geoffrey, Abdul Rahman & Alanna Morris. 2000. The Christine corpus (Release 2). Sussex: University of Sussex.Google Scholar

  • Schmitt, Norbert, Sarah Grandage & Svenja Adolphs. 2004. Are corpus-derived recurrent clusters psycholinguistically valid? In Norbert Schmitt (ed.), Formulaic sequences: Acquisition, processing and use, 127–151. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Scott, Mike. 2015. WordSmith Tools (Version 6) [software]. Liverpool.Google Scholar

  • Sinclair, John. 1991. Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Siyanova-Chanturia, Anna. 2015. On the ‘holistic’ nature of formulaic language. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 11. 285–301.Google Scholar

  • Slobin, Dan I. (ed). 1985. The crosslinguistic study of language acquisition: Theoretical issue, Vol. 2. New Jersey: Erlbaum.Google Scholar

  • Sosa, Anna Vogel & James MacFarlane. 2002. Evidence for frequency-based constituents in the mental lexicon: Collocations involving the word of. Brain and Language 83(2). 227–236.Google Scholar

  • Van Dijk, Teun & Walter Kintsch. 1983. Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar

  • Van Dyke, Julie A. & Clinton L. Johns. 2012. Memory interference as a determinant of language comprehension. Language and Linguistics Compass 6(4). 193–211.Google Scholar

  • Wray, Alison. 2002. Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Wray, Alison. 2013. Formulaic language. Language Teaching 46(3). 316–334.Google Scholar

  • Wu, Chu-hsia. 1995. On the cultural traits of Chinese idioms. Intercultural Communication Studies 5. 61–82.Google Scholar

  • Xiao, Richard. 2010. Idioms, word clusters and reformulation markers in translational Chinese. In Richard Xiao (ed.), Proceedings of the international symposium on using corpora in contrastive and translation studies 2010 conference (UCCTS2010). Lancaster: Lancaster University.Google Scholar

About the article

Received: 2015-10-26

Accepted: 2017-02-13

Revised: 2017-01-28

Published Online: 2017-03-17

Published in Print: 2017-05-01

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics, Volume 28, Issue 2, Pages 209–237, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/cog-2015-0112.

Export Citation

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in