Alternation-based generalizations are stored in the mental grammar: Evidence from a sorting task experiment

  • 1 Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg & Université Lille III


According to constructional approaches, grammar consists of an inventory of symbolic pairings of a syntactic form with an abstract meaning. Many of such so-called constructions can be perceived as having highly similar meanings: such pairs have been discussed under the name of alternations, especially in the domain of argument structure, for example the widely documented dative alternation (e.g. John gave Mary a book vs. John gave a book to Mary). This paper explores what status such pairs of constructions can be given in construction grammar, on the basis of a sorting task experiment.

Construction grammar traditionally recognizes generalizations of a common syntactic form over semantically similar sentences, but the status of higher-level generalizations of a common meaning over syntactically different forms is rarely discussed. In our study, we devised a sorting task that subjects could resolve by relying on generalizations of either of these two kinds. We find that subjects rely on alternation-based generalizations more often than purely constructional ones in their sorting behavior. We suggest these results show that generalizations of a common meaning between formally different constructions are plausible categories stored by speakers and should be given more attention in construction grammar research.

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Cognitive Linguistics presents a forum for linguistic research of all kinds on the interaction between language and cognition. The journal focuses on language as an instrument for organizing, processing and conveying information. It is devoted to high-quality research on topics such as the structural characteristics of natural language categorization and the functional principles of linguistic organization.