A Semantics‐Based Approach to the “No Negative Evidence” Problem

Cognitive Science 33 (7):1301-1316 (2009)
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Abstract

Previous studies have shown that children retreat from argument‐structure overgeneralization errors (e.g., *Don’t giggle me) by inferring that frequently encountered verbs are unlikely to be grammatical in unattested constructions, and by making use of syntax‐semantics correspondences (e.g., verbs denoting internally caused actions such as giggling cannot normally be used causatively). The present study tested a new account based on a unitary learning mechanism that combines both of these processes. Seventy‐two participants (ages 5–6, 9–10, and adults) rated overgeneralization errors with higher (*The funny man’s joke giggled Bart) and lower (*The funny man giggled Bart) degrees of direct external causation. The errors with more‐direct causation were rated as less unacceptable than those with less‐direct causation. This finding is consistent with the new account, under which children acquire—in an incremental and probabilistic fashion—the meaning of particular constructions (e.g., transitive causative = direct external causation) and particular verbs, rejecting generalizations where the incompatibility between the two is too great.

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