Field of Science

Class Notes: Why linguistic judgments are fuzzy

Buried towards the end of a 1991 paper by Fisher, Gleitman & Gleitman is a strikingly useful -- and I think, correct -- observation on the limits of grammaticality studies. In the context of a broader argument that people learn the meanings of verbs partly from the syntactic frames the verbs appear in ("syntactic bootstrapping"), they argue that exactly this "feature" of verb learning makes it sometimes hard to decide if a particular verb is grammatical in a certain context.

Consider the present progressive in English. Classically, the present progressive can only be used for ongoing activities (1-3), not completed activities (4) or states that aren't typically activities (5):

(1) Sarah is eating the carrot.
(2) Sarah is running to the store.
(3) Sarah is looking at the moon.
(4) *Sarah is breaking the vase.
(5) *Sarah is seeing the moon.

However, a lot of people's judgments about (4) and (5) are iffy. They don't sound nearly so ungrammatical as (6).

(6) The boys carrot eats.

The idea is that people are influenced by the syntactic frame the verb appears in and reinterpret the verb. That is, if you think of "breaking" as something that happens in an instant, it isn't an activity and you can't say (4). However, if you imagine a long, drawn-out process in which Sarah methodically destroys a vase, "break" is now an activity, and (4) is fine. Similarly, "see" usually describes an end-state of some process, but you can re-imagine it as an activity (maybe Sarah observes the moon regularly as part of her profession).

I run into this constantly in my study of verbs of psychological state. Influenced by a paper by Liina Pylkkanen's 1991 "On stativity and causation," I've been pursuing the argument that certain psych verbs can't appear in certain syntactic frames. For instance, "love" and "hate" can't appear in the present progressive. In a sense, this seems right; (7) and (8) are somewhat more odd than (9) and (10).

(7) *John is loving the Red Sox.
(8) *John is hating the Yankees.
(9) John is frightening the squirrels.
(10) John is angering the chickens.

Unfortunately, one can usually find a way of reinterpreting "love" and "hate" such that they are activities  and then (7) and (8) don't sound so bad. This has made testing the hypothesis difficult. In addition, English appears to be changing to allow more psych verbs in the present progressive (darn you, McDonalds).


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Fisher, C., Gleitman, L. R., & Gleitman, H. (1991). On the semantic content of subcategorization frames. Cognitive Psychology, 23, 331-392.

3 comments:

D R Zinn said...

Don't forget the present progressive used for the future, e.g. "I'm seeing Avatar this weekend." or "I'm going to Disneyland!"

outerhoard said...

When I read "Sarah is breaking the vase" I immediately thought of a scenario in which someone is describing a photograph taken with a high-speed camera.

Szwagier said...

I'm guessing 'need' is one of these psych verbs. Sentences like "I'm needing a break", which are of dubious grammaticality in 'standard' British English, are perfectly grammatical in Scottish English.