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Is Passive Syntax Semantically Constrained? Evidence From Adult Grammaticality Judgment and Comprehension Studies

Ambridge, B., Bidgood, A., Pine, J. M., & Rowland, C. F. (2016). Is Passive Syntax Semantically Constrained? Evidence From Adult Grammaticality Judgment and Comprehension Studies. Cognitive Science, 40, 1435-1459. doi:10.1111/cogs.12277.
To explain the phenomenon that certain English verbs resist passivization (e.g., *£5 was cost by the book), Pinker (1989) proposed a semantic constraint on the passive in the adult grammar: The greater the extent to which a verb denotes an action where a patient is affected or acted upon, the greater the extent to which it is compatible with the passive. However, a number of comprehension and production priming studies have cast doubt upon this claim, finding no difference between highly affecting agent-patient/theme-experiencer passives (e.g., Wendy was kicked/frightened by Bob) and non-actional experiencer theme passives (e.g., Wendy was heard by Bob). The present study provides evidence that a semantic constraint is psychologically real, and is readily observed when more fine-grained independent and dependent measures are used (i.e., participant ratings of verb semantics, graded grammaticality judgments, and reaction time in a forced-choice picture-matching comprehension task). We conclude that a semantic constraint on the passive must be incorporated into accounts of the adult grammar.

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