The roles of verb semantics, entrenchment, and morphophonology in the retreat from dative argument-structure overgeneralization errors


Children (aged five-to-six and nine-to-ten years) and adults rated the acceptability of well-formed sentences and argument-structure overgeneralization errors involving the prepositional-object and double-object dative constructions (e.g. Marge pulled the box to Homer/*Marge pulled Homer the box). In support of the entrenchment hypothesis, a negative correlation was observed between verb frequency and the acceptability of errors, across all age groups. Adults additionally displayed sensitivity to narrow-range semantic constraints on the alternation, rejecting double-object dative uses of novel verbs consistent with prepositional-dative-only classes and vice versa. Adults also provided evidence for the psychological validity of a proposed morphophonological constraint prohibiting Latinate verbs from appearing in the double-object dative. These findings are interpreted in the light of a recent account of argument-structure acquisition, under which children retreat from error by incrementally learning the semantic, phonological, and pragmatic properties associated with particular verbs and particular construction slots.