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Compositionality and Statistics in Adjective Acquisition: 4-Year-Olds Interpret Tall and Short Based on the Size Distributions of Novel Noun Referents


  • Thank you to Kristen Syrett, Katherine Chow, and an anonymous reviewer for her helpful comments on this manuscript. Thanks also to Alan Bale for his stimulating discussions, to Lorraine Barner and Jeremy Hartman for help with recruitment and data collection, to participants and caregivers from the Comox Valley, the greater Boston area, and the greater Toronto area, and to members of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard for their feedback early in the project. Thank you also to Phil Desenne (for stimulus creation and “Pimwit ale”) and Julie Burelle (for coining the term pimwit). The research was supported by a Harvard University Graduate Society Dissertation Completion Fellowship to David Barner and a Harvard University Mind, Brain, and Behavior Graduate Award to David Barner.

concerning this article should be addressed to David Barner, Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, 4020 Sidney Smith Hall, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada. Electronic mail may be sent to


Four experiments investigated 4-year-olds’ understanding of adjective–noun compositionality and their sensitivity to statistics when interpreting scalar adjectives. In Experiments 1 and 2, children selected tall and short items from 9 novel objects called pimwits (1–9 in. in height) or from this array plus 4 taller or shorter distractor objects of the same kind. Changing the height distributions of the sets shifted children’s tall and short judgments. However, when distractors differed in name and surface features from targets, in Experiment 3, judgments did not shift. In Experiment 4, dissimilar distractors did affect judgments when they received the same name as targets. It is concluded that 4-year-olds deploy a compositional semantics that is sensitive to statistics and mediated by linguistic labels.