Structural priming is determined by global syntax rather than internal phrasal structure: Evidence from young and older adults

J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2020 Apr;46(4):720-740. doi: 10.1037/xlm0000754. Epub 2019 Sep 23.


Structural priming refers to the tendency of speakers to repeat syntactic structures across sentences. We investigated the extent to which structural priming persists with age and whether the effect depends upon highly abstract syntactic representations that only encompass the global sentence structure or whether representations are specified for internal constituent phrasal properties. In Experiment 1, young and older adults described transitive verb targets that contained the plural morphology of the patient role ("The horse is chasing the frogs/The frogs are being chased by the horse."). While maintaining the conceptual and global syntactic structure of the prime, we manipulated the internal phrasal structure of the patient role to either match (plural; "The king is punching the builders/The builders are being punched by the king.") or mismatch (coordinate noun phrase; "The king is punching the pirate and the builder/The pirate and the builder are being punched by the king.") the target. In both age groups, we observed limited priming of onset latencies, but robust effects of choice structural priming-participants produced more passive targets following passive primes-that critically did not vary dependent on whether the internal constituent structure matched or mismatched between the prime and target. Experiment 2 replicated these findings for the agent role: choice structural priming was unaffected by age or changes to the prime noun phrase type. This demonstrates that global, not internal, syntactic structure determines syntactic choices in young and older adults, as predicted by residual activation and implicit learning models of structural priming. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Psycholinguistics*
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult