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Priming is a phenomenon studied in the field of psycholinguistics. Introduced by Michigan State University psycholinguist J. Kathryn Bock in 1986,[1] structural priming is a form of positive priming, in that it induces a tendency to repeat or more easily process a current sentence that is similar in structure to one previously presented. Several paradigms exist to elicit structural priming,.[1][2] Structural priming persists cross-linguistically.[3] One specific form of structural priming is syntactic priming.

Eliciting structural primingEdit

Bock introduced a picture description task[1] to investigate this phenomenon.

Picture description

The procedure outlined in Bock (1986) follows:

Study phase
  • Participants read, at their own pace, a list of sentences and observed a set of pictures.
    • All pictures described transitive events including an agent, patient, and theme. Half of the agents pictured were humans, half inanimate objects.
  • This phase of the experiment was performed in an attempt to establish a "recognition memory" cover story.
Test phase
  • Participants were to read a sentence in one of four conditions.
    • Transitive active: George kicked the ball
    • Transitive passive: The ball was kicked by George
    • Dative double-object: George gave the boy the ball
    • Dative prepositional phrase: George gave the ball to the boy
  • After being read a sentence, the participant repeats it.
  • Following this repetition, the participant describes the picture.
Results of picture description

Consider a trial wherein the participant is read a dative double-object construction George gave the boy the ball. The subject is then significantly more likely to describe the a picture as X gave Y Z as compared to X gave the Z to Y. This persistence in sentential form is structural priming.[1]

Theory of structural primingEdit

At least three theories exist to explain the phenomenon of structural priming: syntactic repetition; thematic congruency; derivation of subjects.

Syntactic repetition

In the Bock study, the sentences presented match their primes in syntactic structure. This is trivially true for any type-type prime. However, other structural priming patterns exist that complicate this explanation.

Thematic congruency

One structure know as the unaccusative, which is unmarked morphologically in English, is capable of priming passive transitive sentences. The two constructions differ in syntax, but in both cases the subject takes a thematic, or at least non-agentive, thematic role.

  • Unaccusative: The parcel arrived
  • Passive Transitive: The parcel was sent by the post

Because the two constructions have this property in common, it has been suggested that such a thematic relational mapping is what allows structural priming[4]

Derivation of subjects

A second possibility for describing the presence of unaccusative-passive priming is their shared characteristic of having a derived subject. For instance, the passive subject is said by some scholars of syntax to be derived via movement, or "smuggling," from the same position where it is generated in the active, to wit the complement of the transitive verb.[5] Though the derivation of the unaccusative does not seem to be an identical process, it is assumed to be nevertheless derived[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Bock, J.K. (1986). Syntactic persistence in language production. Cognitive Psychology, 18, 355-387.
  2. Potter, M & Lombardi, L. 1990. Regeneration in short-term recall of sentences. Journal of Memory and Language, 29, 633-654.
  3. Loebell, H. & Bock, K. (2003). Structural priming across languages. Linguistics, 41(5), 791-824.
  4. Melinger, A. (2006). The influence of thematic role assignment on structural priming. Poster presented at the 19th annual CUNY conference on Human Sentence Processing, New York, NY.
  5. Collins, C. (2005). A smuggling approach to the passive in english. Syntax, August, 81-120.
  6. Kim, C. (2006). Structural and Thematic Information in Sentence Production. Proceedings of NELS 37. UIUC.
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