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Hardcover | Out of Print | 432 pp. | 6 x 9 in | September 1989 | ISBN: 9780262161114
Paperback | Out of Print | 432 pp. | 6 x 9 in | August 1991 | ISBN: 9780262660730
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Learnability and Cognition

The Acquisition of Argument Structure


When children learn a language, they soon are able to make surprisingly subtle distinctions: "donate them a book" sounds odd, for example, even though "give them a book" is perfectly natural. How can this happen, given that children do not confine themselves to the sentence types they hear, and are usually not corrected when they speak ungrammatically? Steven Pinker resolves this paradox in a detailed theory of how children acquire argument structure.

In tackling a learning paradox that has challenged scholars for more than a decade, Pinker synthesizes a vast literature in linguistics and psycholinguistics and outlines explicit theories of the mental representation, learning, and development of verb meaning and verb syntax. The new theory that he describes has some surprising implications for the relation between language and thought.Pinker's solution provides insight into such key questions as, When do children generalize and when do they stick with what they hear? What is the rationale behind linguistic constraints? How is the syntax of predicates and arguments related to their semantics? What is a possible word meaning? Do languages force their speakers to construe the world in certain ways? Why does children's language seem different from that of adults?

Learnability and Cognition is included in the series Learning, Development, and Conceptual Change, edited by Lila Gleitman, Susan Carey, Elissa Newport, and Elizabeth Spelke.

A Bradford Book

About the Author

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature have won numerous prizes.


Learnability and Cognition is theoretically a big advance, beautifully reasoned, and a goldmine of information.”
Lila Gleitman
“Pinker's book is a monumental study that sets a new standard for work on learnability.”
Ray Jackendoff , Brandeis University
“Pinker's book is a monumental piece of work it sets a standard for work in learnability.”
Ray Jackendoff, Brandeis University