Semantic factors in the production of number agreement

Jason Barker, Janet Nicol, Merrill Garrett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


This paper examines the role of semantic factors in the production of subject-verb number agreement. As an ostensibly grammatical process, number agreement provides an interesting case for examining the flow and interaction of semantic and syntactic information through the language-production system. Using a sentence-completion task, agreement errors can be elicited from subjects by presenting them with sentence fragments containing a complex noun-phrase, in which the nonhead noun is plural (e.g., The key to the cabinets . . . WERE missing.). Previous research has demonstrated that the probability of making an error can be affected by varying the properties of the nouns in the complex noun phrase. By investigating which variables do and do not affect error rates, constraints on the flow of information through the production system can be inferred. In three experiments, we investigated the possible effects of three different semantic manipulations of the nouns in the complex NP: animacy, semantic overlap, and plausibility of modification by the sentence predicate. We found that both animacy and semantic relatedness had reliable effects on error rates, indicating that the mechanism involved in implementing agreement cannot be blind to semantic information. However, the plausibility with which each noun could serve as the subject of the sentence predicate had no effect on error rates. Taken together, these results suggest that while semantic information is visible to the agreement mechanism, there are still constraints on when this information can affect the process. Specifically, it may be the case that only information contained within the complex NP is considered for the purposes of implementing agreement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-114
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of psycholinguistic research
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001


  • Agreement
  • Language production
  • Speech errors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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