Field of Science

Keeping up to date

Recently, we've added several methods of keeping up to date on projects (finding out when results of old studies are available, when new studies are posted, etc.). In addition to following this blog, that is.

1. Join the Google Group for occasional (5x/year) email updates.

2. Follow @gameswithwords on Twitter.

3. Like our Facebook page.

Citizen Science: Rinse & Repeat

One of the funny things about language is that everybody has their own. There is no "English" out there, existing independently of all its speakers. Instead, there are about one billion people out there, all of whom speak their own idiolect. Most likely, no two people share exactly the same vocabulary (I know some words you might not, possibly including idiolect, and you know some words I don't). Reasonable people can disagree about grammar rules, particularly if one is from Florida and the other from Northern Ireland.

This is one of the reasons we decided to ask people to create usernames in order to contribute to VerbCorner. Suppose two people answer the same question on VerbCorner but disagree. One possibility is that one of them made a mistake (which happens!). But another possibility is that they actually speak different dialects of English, and both are correct (for their dialect). It's hard to tell these possibilities apart by looking at just one question, but by looking at their answers to a set of questions, we can start to get a handle on whether this was a mistake or a real disagreement. The more answers we get from the same person -- particularly across different tasks -- the easier it is to do these analyses.

If we didn't have usernames, it would be hard to figure out which answers all belong to the same person. This is particularly true if the same person comes back to the website from time to time.

People are coming back. At last check, we have ten folks who have answered over 500 questions and four who have answered over 1000. (You can see this by clicking "more" on the leader-board on the main page).

Still, it would be great if we had even more folks who have answered large numbers of questions. Our goal is to have everyone in the top 20 to have answered at least 500 questions by the end of the month.

What makes a sentence ungrammatical?

This is the latest in a series of posts explaining the scientific motivations for the VerbCorner project.

There are many sentences that are grammatical but don't make much sense, including Chomsky's famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” and sentences which seemed perfectly interpretable but are grammatical, such as “John fell the vase” or “Sally laughed Mary” (where the first sentence means that John caused the vase to fall, and the second sentence means that Sally made Mary laugh). You can hit at a window or kick at a window but not shatter at a window or break at a window (unless you are the one shattering or breaking!).

Sentence frames

Notice that these are not agreement errors (“Sally laughed”) or other word-ending errors ("Sally runned to the store"), but instead have something to do with the structure of the sentence as a whole. Linguists often refer to these sentence structures as "frames". There is the transitive frame (NOUN VERB NOUN), the intransitive frame (NOUN VERB), the 'at' frame (NOUN VERB at NOUN), etc. And it seems that certain verbs can go in some frames but not others.

There are many sentence frames (there is disagreement about exactly how to count them, but there are at least a few dozen), and most verbs can appear in somewhere around a half dozen of them. For instance, "thump" can appear in at least eight frames:

NOUN VERB NOUN:                                                  John thumped the door.
NOUN VERB NOUN with NOUN:                             John thumped the door with a stick.
NOUN VERB NOUNs together:                                   John thumped the sticks together.
NOUN VERB NOUN ADJECTIVE:                           John thumped the door open.
NOUN VERB NOUN ADJECTIVE with NOUN:       John thumped the door open with a stick.
NOUN VERB NOUN to [STATE]:                              John thumped the door to pieces.
NOUN VERB NOUN to [STATE] with NOUN:         John thumped the door to pieces with a stick.
NOUN VERB NOUN against NOUN:                         John thumped the stick against the door.

But there are a large number of frames "thump" can't appear in (at least, not without a lot of straining), such as:

NOUN VERB NOUN that SENTENCE:                    John thumped that Mary was angry.
NOUN VERB NOUN NOUN:                                    John thumped Mary the book.
NOUN VERB easily:                                                   Books thump easily.
There VERB NOUN out of [LOCATION]:               There thumped John out of the house.
NOUN VERB what INFINITIVE:                             John thumped what to do.
NOUN VERB INFINITIVE:                                      John thumped to sing

Explaining language

Perhaps these are just funny facts that we must learn about the language we speak, with no rhyme or reason. This is probably true for some aspects of grammar, like which verbs are irregular (that the past tense of “sleep” is “slept” is a historical accident). But a lot of researchers have suspected that there is a reason why language is the way it is and why certain verbs can go into certain frames but not others.

Going back several decades, researchers noticed that when you sort sentences based on the kind of sentence frames they can fit into, you do not get incoherent jumbles of verbs, but rather groups of verbs that all seem to share something in common. So “shatter” and “break” can be used with the object that is shattering or breaking as the direct object ("John shattered/broke the vase") or as the subject ("The vase shattered/broke"). All the verbs that can do this seem to describe some caused change of state (the vase is changing). Verbs that do not describe some kind of caused change cannot appear in both of these forms (you can say “John hit/kicked the vase" but not "The vase hit/kicked" -- at least not without a very special vase!).

Causality might also explain why you can hit at a window or kick at a window but not shatter or break at a window: the addition of the preposition "at" suggests that the action was ineffectual (you tried hitting the window without doing much damage) which is simply nonsensical with words that by their very definition require success. How do you ineffectually shatter a window? You either shatter it or you don't.

So maybe which verbs can go in which frames is not so mysterious after all. Maybe it is a simple function of meaning. Certain verbs have the right meanings for certain sentence frames. No more explanation necessary.

The VerbCorner Contribution

When you group verbs based on the frames they can appear in, you get several hundred groups of verbs in English. Of these, only a handful have been studied in any detail. While it does look like those groups can be explained in terms of their meaning, you might wonder if perhaps these are unusual cases, and if researchers looked at the rest, we would find something different. In fact, a number of researchers have wondered just that.

The difficulty has always been that there are a lot of verbs and a lot of groups. Studying just one group can take a research team years. Studying all of them would take lifetimes.

This is why we decided to crowd-source the problem. Rather than have a few people spend a lifetime, if a lots of people each contribute just a little, we can finish the project in a couple years, if not sooner.

Contribute to the VerbCorner project at