A Semantics-Based Approach to the “no negative evidence” problem

Ambridge, B., Pine, J. M., Rowland, C. F., Jones, R. L., & Clark, V. (2009). A Semantics-Based Approach to the “no negative evidence” problem. Cognitive Science, 33(7), 1301-1316. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2009.01055.x.
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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