Semantics of the transitive construction: prototype effects and developmental comparisons

Ibbotson, Paul; Theakston, Anna; Lieven, Elena and Tomasello, Michael (2012). Semantics of the transitive construction: prototype effects and developmental comparisons. Cognitive Science, 36(7) pp. 1268–1288.



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’.

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