Adaptation at the Syntax–Semantics Interface: Evidence From a Vernacular Structure

Frances Blanchette, Erin Flannery, Carrie Jackson, Paul Reed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Expanding on psycholinguistic research on linguistic adaptation, the phenomenon whereby speakers change how they comprehend or produce structures as a result of cumulative exposure to less frequent or unfamiliar linguistic structures, this study asked whether speakers can learn semantic and syntactic properties of the American English vernacular negative auxiliary inversion (NAI) structure (e.g., didn’t everybody eat, meaning “not everybody ate”) during the course of an experiment. Formal theoretical analyses of NAI informed the design of a task in which American English-speaking participants unfamiliar with this structure were exposed to NAI sentences in either semantically ambiguous or unambiguous contexts. Participants rapidly adapted to the interpretive properties of NAI, selecting responses similar to what would be expected of a native speaker after only limited exposure to semantically ambiguous input. On a separate ratings task, participants displayed knowledge of syntactic restrictions on NAI subject type, despite having no previous exposure. We discuss the results in the context of other experimental studies of adaptation and suggest the implementation of top-down strategies via analogy to other familiar structure types as possible explanations for the behaviors observed in this study. The study illustrates the value of integrating insights from formal theoretical research and psycholinguistic methods in research on adaptation and highlights the need for more interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary work in both experimental and naturalistic contexts to understand this phenomenon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)140-165
Number of pages26
JournalLanguage and Speech
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


Dive into the research topics of 'Adaptation at the Syntax–Semantics Interface: Evidence From a Vernacular Structure'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this