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Online processing of Verb–Argument Constructions: lexical decision and meaningfulness

  • NICK C. ELLIS (a1)


This paper discusses how patterns of construction usage, implicitly learned over lifelong experience, tune the language processing system for fluent interactive lexical, syntactic, and semantic access. It reports on three experiments that investigate online processing of Verb–Argument Constructions (VACs) and the degree to which this is effected by (i) verb frequency in the language, (ii) verb frequency in the VAC, (iii) VAC-verb contingency, and (iv) verb prototypicality in terms of centrality within the VAC semantic network. Experiment 1 tested lexical decision of VAC exemplars presented as successive verb–preposition pairs. Experiment 2 tested lexical decision of VAC exemplars presented as arbitrarily interrupted verb–adverb–preposition pairs. Experiment 3 had participants judge whether two-word utterances were meaningful or not. All of the experiments show effects of Verb Frequency and Verb-VAC frequency: learners have rich implicit statistical knowledge of verb-VAC type–token frequency that guides processing. Lexical decision is additionally driven by semantic prototypicality (but not VAC-verb contingency ΔPcw), whereas meaning judgment is affected by VAC-verb contingency ΔPcw (but not semantic prototypicality). These findings, I argue, index the spreading activation of unconscious meaning representation in lexical decision in comparison to the election of a unitary interpretation in conscious comprehension. I conclude that speeded automatic VAC processing involves rich associations, tuned by verb type and token frequencies, their contingencies of usage, and their histories of prototypical and specific interpretations which interface syntax, lexis, and semantics.

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