Semantics of the Transitive Construction: Prototype Effects and Developmental Comparisons

Paul Ibbotson, Anna L. Theakston, Elena V M Lieven, Michael Tomasello

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This paper investigates whether an abstract linguistic construction shows the kind of prototype effects characteristic of non-linguistic categories, in both adults and young children. Adapting the prototype-plus-distortion methodology of Franks and Bransford (1971), we found that whereas adults were lured toward false-positive recognition of sentences with prototypical transitive semantics, young children showed no such effect. We examined two main implications of the results. First, it adds a novel data point to a growing body of research in cognitive linguistics and construction grammar that shows abstract linguistic categories can behave in similar ways to non-linguistic categories, for example, by showing graded membership of a category. Thus, the findings lend psychological validity to the existing cross-linguistic evidence for prototypical transitive semantics. Second, we discuss a possible explanation for the fact that prototypical sentences were processed differently in adults and children, namely, that children's transitive semantic network is not as interconnected or cognitively coherent as adults'. © 2012 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1268-1288
    Number of pages20
    JournalCognitive Science
    Issue number7
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012


    • Categorization
    • Grammar
    • Prototype
    • Semantics


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