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

Cognitive Science 40 (6):1435-1459 (2016)
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To explain the phenomenon that certain English verbs resist passivization, Pinker 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 and non-actional experiencer theme passives. 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. We conclude that a semantic constraint on the passive must be incorporated into accounts of the adult grammar.



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