The development of abstract syntax: Evidence from structural priming and the lexical boost

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Authors:
  • Caroline F. Rowland
  • Franklin Chang
  • Ben Ambridge
  • Julian M. Pine
  • Elena V M Lieven


Structural priming paradigms have been influential in shaping theories of adult sentence processing and theories of syntactic development. However, until recently there have been few attempts to provide an integrated account that explains both adult and developmental data. The aim of the present paper was to begin the process of integration by taking a developmental approach to structural priming. Using a dialog comprehension-to-production paradigm, we primed participants (3-4. year olds, 5-6. year olds and adults) with double object datives (Wendy gave Bob a dog) and prepositional datives (Wendy gave a dog to Bob). Half the participants heard the same verb in prime and target (e.g. gave-gave) and half heard a different verb (e.g. sent-gave). The results revealed substantial differences in the magnitude of priming across development. First, there was a small but significant abstract structural priming effect across all age groups, but this effect was larger in younger children than in older children and adults. Second, adding verb overlap between prime and target prompted a large, significant increase in the priming effect in adults (a lexical boost), a small, marginally significant increase in the older children and no increase in the youngest children. The results support the idea that abstract syntactic knowledge can develop independently of verb-specific frames. They also support the idea that different mechanisms may be needed to explain abstract structural priming and lexical priming, as predicted by the implicit learning account (Bock, K., & Griffin, Z. M. (2000). The persistence of structural priming: Transient activation or implicit learning? Journal of Experimental Psychology - General, 129(2), 177-192). Finally, the results illustrate the value of an integrative developmental approach to both theories of adult sentence processing and theories of syntax acquisition. © 2012 Elsevier B.V.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-63
Number of pages14
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012