Levels of Abstractness in Semantic Noun and Verb Processing: The Role of Sensory-Perceptual and Sensory-Motor Information

  • Jet M. J. VonkEmail author
  • Loraine K. Obler
  • Roel Jonkers


Effects of concreteness and grammatical class on lexical-semantic processing are well-documented, but the role of sensory-perceptual and sensory-motor features of concepts in underlying mechanisms producing these effects is relatively unknown. We hypothesized that processing dissimilarities in accuracy and response time performance in nouns versus verbs, concrete versus abstract words, and their interaction can be explained by differences in semantic weight—the combined amount of sensory-perceptual and sensory-motor information to conceptual representations—across those grammatical and semantic categories. We assessed performance on concrete and abstract subcategories of nouns and verbs with a semantic similarity judgment task. Results showed that when main effects of concreteness and grammatical class were analyzed in more detail, the grammatical-class effect, in which nouns are processed more accurately and quicker than verbs, was only present for concrete words, not for their abstract counterparts. Moreover, the concreteness effect, measured at different levels of abstract words, was present for both nouns and verbs, but it was less pronounced for verbs. The results do not support the grammatical-class hypothesis, in which nouns and verbs are separately organized, and instead provide evidence in favor of a unitary semantic space, in which lexical-semantic processing is influenced by the beneficial effect of sensory-perceptual and sensory-motor information of concepts.


Grammatical class Imageability Concreteness Semantics Comprehension Mental lexicon 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Neurology, Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging BrainColumbia University Medical CenterNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Speech-Language-Hearing SciencesThe Graduate Center of the City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands

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