From semantics to syntax and back again: Argument structure in the third year of life

Keith J. Fernandes, Gary F. Marcus, Jennifer A. Di Nubila, Athena Vouloumanos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An essential part of the human capacity for language is the ability to link conceptual or semantic representations with syntactic representations. On the basis of data from spontaneous production, Tomasello (2000) suggested that young children acquire such links on a verb-by-verb basis, with little in the way of a general understanding of linguistic argument structure. Here, we suggest that a receptive understanding of argument structure-including principles linking syntax and conceptual/semantic structure-appears earlier. In a forced-choice pointing task we have shown that toddlers in the third year of life can map a single scene (involving a novel causative action paired with a novel verb) onto two distinct syntactic frames (transitive and intransitive). This suggests that even before toddlers begin generalizing argument structure in their own speech, they have some representation of conceptual/semantic categories, syntactic categories, and a system that links the two.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)B10-B20
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2006


  • Argument structure
  • Children
  • Semantics
  • Syntax
  • Toddlers
  • Verb learning
  • Word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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