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Verbs in the lexicon: Why is hitting easier than breaking?

  • Gail McKoon (a1) and Jessica Love (a1)


Adult speakers use verbs in syntactically appropriate ways. For example, they know implicitly that the boy hit at the fence is acceptable but the boy broke at the fence is not. We suggest that this knowledge is lexically encoded in semantic decompositions. The decomposition for break verbs (e.g. crack, smash) is hypothesized to be more complex than that for hit verbs (e.g. kick, kiss). Specifically, the decomposition of a break verb denotes that “an entity changes state as the result of some external force” whereas the decomposition for a hit verb denotes only that “an entity potentially comes in contact with another entity.” In this article, verbs of the two types were compared in a lexical decision experiment—Experiment 1—and they were compared in sentence comprehension experiments with transitive sentences (e.g. the car hit the bicycle and the car broke the bicycle)—Experiments 2 and 3. In Experiment 1, processing times were shorter for the hit than the break verbs and in Experiments 2 and 3, processing times were shorter for the hit sentences than the break sentences, results that are in accord with the complexities of the postulated semantic decompositions.


Corresponding author

Correspondence addresses: Gail McKoon, Department of Psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 43210. Email:


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