Skip to main content

Noun or verb? Adult readers’ sensitivity to spelling cues to grammatical category in word endings

Abstract

The spelling of many disyllabic English word endings holds cues to their grammatical category, beyond obvious inflectional endings such as -ing for verbs. For example, some letter sequences are clearly associated with nouns (e.g., -oon) and others with verbs (e.g., -erge). This study extended recent research by Arciuli and Cupples (2006), and confirmed that skilled adult readers are sensitive to these orthographic cues. It was found that adults were more likely to treat pseudowords as nouns when they had noun-like endings than verb-like or control endings, and more likely to treat pseudowords as verbs when they had verb-like than noun-like endings. This sensitivity held across three tasks (sentence construction, sentence judgement, and pseudoword judgement), which required increasingly explicit awareness of the way that cues could allow grammatical categorisation. In some tasks sensitivity to verb-like endings was related to reading ability, although not to spelling ability or grammatical awareness. Implications for our understanding of language processing are discussed.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Arciuli, J., & Cupples, L. (2003). Effects of stress typicality during speeded grammatical classification. Language and Speech, 46, 353–374.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Arciuli, J., & Cupples, L. (2004). The effects of stress typicality during spoken word recognition by native and non-native speakers: Evidence from onset-gating. Memory and Cognition, 32, 21–30.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arciuli, J., & Cupples, L. (2006). The processing of lexical stress during visual word recognition: Typicality effects and orthographic correlates. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 920–948.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Arciuli, J., & Cupples, L. (2007). Would you rather ‘embert a cudsert’ or ‘cudsert an embert’? How spelling patterns at the beginning of English disyllables can cue grammatical category. In A. Schalley & D. Khlentzos (Eds.), Mental states: Language and cognitive structure (pp. 213–237).

  • Arciuli, J., & Monaghan, P. (2006). Hidden cues to grammatical category in the spelling of English disyllables The 15th Australian Language and Speech Conference. Australian Journal of Psychology, 58, 1–13.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arciuli, J., & Slowiaczek, L. (2007). The where and when of linguistic word level prosody. Neuropsychologia, 45, 2638–2642.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Arévalo, A., Perani, D., Cappa, S. F., Butler, A., Bates, E., & Dronkers, N. (2007). Action and object processing in aphasia: From nouns and verbs to the effect of manipulability. Brain and Language, 100, 79–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baayen, R. H., Piepenbrock, R., & Gulikers, L. (1995). The CELEX Lexical Database (CD-ROM). Linguistic Data Consortium. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baker, R. G., & Smith, P. T. (1976). A psycholinguistic study of English stress assignment rules. Language and Speech, 19, 9–17.

    Google Scholar 

  • Black, M., & Chiat, S. (2003). Noun-verb dissociations: A multi-faceted phenomenon. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 16, 231–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boland, J. E. (1997). Resolving syntactic category ambiguities in discourse context: Probabilistic and discourse constraints. Journal of Memory and Language, 36, 588–615.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Carlisle, J. F. (1995). Morphological awareness and early reading achievement. In L. B. Feldman (Ed.), Morphological aspects of language processing (pp. 189–209). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cassar, M., & Treiman, R. (1997). The beginnings of orthographic knowledge: Children’s knowledge of double letters in words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 631–644.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cassidy, K. W., & Kelly, M. (1991). Phonological information for grammatical category assignments. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 348–369.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cassidy, K. W., & Kelly, M. (2001). Children’s use of phonology to infer grammatical class in vocabulary learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review Journal, 8, 519–523.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cazden, C. B. (1976). Play with language and metalinguistic awareness: One dimension of language experience. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly, & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play: Its role in development and evolution (pp. 603–608). New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • D’Amico, S., Bentrovato, S., Gasparini, M., Costabile, D., & Bates, E. (2002). Timed picture-naming in Italian-speaking children and adults: Differences between nouns and verbs. Paper Presented at IASCL-SRCLD, Madison, WI.

  • Davis, S. M., & Kelly, M. (1997). Knowledge of the English noun-verb stress difference by native and nonnative speakers. Journal of Memory and Language, 36, 445–460.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Durieux, G., & Gillis, S. (2001). Predicting grammatical classes from phonological cues: An empirical test. In J. Weissenborn & B. Höhle (Eds.), Approaches to bootstrapping: Phonological, lexical, syntactic and neurophysiological aspects of early language acquisition (Vol. 1, pp. 189–229). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Farmer, T. A., Christiansen, M. H., & Monaghan, P. (2006). Phonological typicality influences lexical processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103, 12203–12208.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fay, D., & Cutler, A. (1977). Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon. Linguistic Inquiry, 8, 505–520.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fudge, E. (1984). English word stress. London: Allen & Unwin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gleitman, L. R., Gleitman, H., Landau, B., & Wanner, E. (1988). Where learning begins: Initial representations for language learning. In F. J. Newmeyer (Ed.), Linguistics: The Cambridge survey (Vol. 3, pp. 150–193). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Gombert, J. E. (1992). Metalinguistic development. New York: Harvester.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gentner, D. (1982). Why are nouns learned before verbs: Linguistic relativity versus natural partitioning. In S. Kuczaj II (Ed.), Language development, Vol. 2: Language, thought, and culture. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gentner, D. (2006). Why verbs are hard to learn. In K. Hirsh-Pasek & R. M. Golinkoff (Eds.), Action meets word: How children learn verbs (pp. 544–564). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hauerwas, L. B., & Walker, J. (2003). Spelling of inflected verb morphology in children with spelling deficits. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 18, 25–35.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jastak, S., & Wilkinson, G. S. (1993). Wide range achievement test-revised 3. Wilmington, DE: Jastak Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  • Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1987). Function and process in comparing language and cognition. In M. Hickmann (Ed.), Social and functional approaches to language and thought (pp. 185–202). New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kelly, M. H. (1988). Phonological biases in grammatical category shifts. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 343–358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kelly, M. H. (1992). Using sound to solve syntactic problems: The role of phonology in grammatical category assignments. Psychological Review, 99, 349–364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kelly, M. H., & Bock, J. K. (1988). Stress in time. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 14, 389–403.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kelly, M. H., Morris, J., & Verrekia, L. (1998). Orthographic cues to lexical stress: Effects on naming and lexical decision. Memory and Cognition, 26, 822–832.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kemp, N., & Bryant, P. (2003). Do beez buzz? Rule-based and frequency-based knowledge in learning to spell plural -s. Child Development, 74, 63–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kessler, B., & Treiman, R. (2003). Is English spelling chaotic? Misconceptions concerning its irregularity. Reading Psychology, 24, 267–289.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kučera, H., & Francis, W. N. (1967). Computational analysis of present-day American English. Providence: Brown University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levy, Y. (1983). It’s frogs all the way down. Cognition, 15, 73–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MacWhinney, B. (1978). The acquisition of morphonology. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 42, Serial No. 174.

  • Maratsos, M. (1983). Some current issues in the study of the acquisition of grammar. In P. Mussen, J. H. Flavell, & E. M. Markman (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 709–777). New York: Wiley.

  • Monaghan, P., Chater, N., & Christiansen, M. H. (2005). The differential contribution of phonological and distributional cues in grammatical categorization. Cognition, 96, 143–182.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Monaghan, P., Christiansen, M. H., & Chater, N. (2007). The Phonological-Distributional Coherence Hypothesis: Cross-linguistic evidence in language acquisition. Cognitive Psychology, 55(4), 259–305.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morgan, J. L., & Demuth, K. (1996). Signal to syntax: Bootstrapping from speech to grammar in early acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morgan, J. L., Meier, R. P., & Newport, E. L. (1987). Structural packaging in the input to language learning: Contributions of prosodic and morphological marking of phrases to the acquisition of language. Cognitive Psychology, 19, 498–550.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morgan, J. L., Shi, R., & Allopenna, P. (1996). Perceptual bases of rudimentary categories: Towards a broader conceptualization of bootstrapping. In J. L. Morgan & K. Demuth (Eds.), Signal to syntax: Bootstrapping from speech to grammar in early acquisition (pp. 263–283). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Newport, E. L., & Aslin, R. N. (2004). Learning at a distance I. Statistical learning of nonadjacent dependencies. Cognitive Psychology, 48, 127–162.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nunes, T., Bryant, P., & Bindman, M. (1997). Morphological spelling strategies: Developmental stages and processes. Developmental Psychology, 33, 637–649.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • O’Dowd, S. C. (1984). Does vocabulary decline qualitatively in old age? Educational Gerontology, 10, 357–368.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rubin, H. (1988). Morphological knowledge and early writing ability. Language and Speech, 31, 337–355.

    Google Scholar 

  • Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996a). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274, 1926–1928.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Saffran, J. R., Newport, E. L., & Aslin, R. N. (1996b). Word segmentation: The role of distributional cues. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 606–621.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Saffran, J. R., Newport, E. L., Aslin, R. N., Tunick, R. A., & Barrueco, S. (1997). Incidental language learning: Listening (and learning) out of the corner of your ear. Psychological Science, 8, 101–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schiff, R., & Raveh, M. (2007). Deficient morphological processing in adults with developmental dyslexia: Another barrier to efficient word recognition? Dyslexia, 13, 110–129.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schiff, R., & Ravid, D. (2007). Conflicting cues in marking plural adjectives in Hebrew. Paper Presented at XIV Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, Prague.

  • Shi, R., Morgan, J., & Allopenna, P. (1998). Phonological and acoustic bases for earliest grammatical category assignment: A cross-linguistic perspective. Journal of Child Language, 25, 169–201.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, P. T., & Baker, R. G. (1976). The influence of English spelling patterns on pronunciation. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 15, 267–285.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, P. T., Baker, R. G., & Groat, A. (1982). Spelling as a source of information about children’s linguistic knowledge. British Journal of Psychology, 73, 339–350.

    Google Scholar 

  • Soreno, J. A., & Jongman, A. (1990). Phonological and form class relations in the lexicon. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 19, 387–404.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Treiman, R., & Zukowski, A. (1988). Units in reading and spelling. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 466–477.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tucker, G. R., Lambert, W. E., Rigault, A., & Segalowitz, N. (1968). A psychological investigation of French speakers’ skill with grammatical gender. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 7, 312–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Valtin, R. (1984). The development of metalinguistic awareness in children learning to read and write. In J. Downing & R. Valtin (Eds.), Language awareness and learning to read (pp. 207–226). New York: Springer-Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilson, M. D. (1988). The MRC psycholinguistic database: Machine readable dictionary, version 2. Behavioural Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers, 20, 6–11.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nenagh Kemp.

Appendix

Appendix

Pseudoword triplets for noun, verb, and control endings

Cue Group 1 pseudowords Group 2 pseudowords Group 3 pseudowords
Noun endings
-ac chilac tresac gromac
-asm lurdasm torlasm mirtasm
-iff borniff darniff kriliff
-int sharint tromint bretint
-ion ellion arnion estion
-ior telior sudior ganior
-is welkis fintis barmis
-ium lorium sedium lotium
-oon rintoon sorpoon tensoon
-ush stinush pretush sartush
Verb endings
-aim artaim erlaim ursaim
-ede monede telede ramede
-erge sonerge roserge toperge
-erve asgerve olverve inderve
-ieve lotieve carieve senieve
-oice intoice arnoice olnoice
-olve panolve warolve fetolve
-ounce ilounce etounce asounce
-act tanact lotact saract
-end sanend futend torend
Control endings
-ide tramide prelide droside
-eal sadeal woreal tiseal
-old fanold perold tagold
-eat saneat tudeat poleat
-ear tarnear gormear lerdear
-ense estense ordense arlense
-ust pitust monust narust
-ate pormate cantate sordate
-en praten spanen frinen
-ert promert trenert spanert
  1. Note: According to both MRC and CELEX databases, all noun endings selected occur in two-syllable nouns 100% of the time (but some unnoted examples seem to exist, e.g., festoon is a verb), and all verb endings selected occur in two-syllable nouns 100% of the time, except for -act (93%) and -end (86%)

Grammatical Awareness Task (answers in bold)

Mean percentage of participants who answered each item correctly shown in parentheses.

Practice items

  • a) Did you see her lovely scarf?/Did you see her lovely scarves?

  •    Did you see his old boot?/Did you see his old boots?

  • b) He chooses his socks carefully./He chose his socks carefully.

  •    He goes down the stairs quietly./He went down the stairs quietly

Verb items

  • 1. The creatures cling to the rocks./The creatures clung to the rocks.

  •    The creatures seek the sunlight./The creatures sought the sunlight. (69)

  • 2. Bill has a tantrum every week./Bill has had a tantrum every week.

  •    Bill quits his job every week./Bill has quit his job every week. (85)

  • 3. Monty wore a woolly jumper./Monty wears a woolly jumper.

  •    Monty bred angora rabbits. /Monty breeds angora rabbits. (91)

  • 4. I have caught the early train./I catch the early train regularly.

  •    I have risen at 6am./I rise at 6am regularly. (85)

  • 5. You trod on my doona./You tread on my doona all the time.

  •    You lay on my bed. /You lie on my bed all the time. (54)

  • 6. Peter has laid the paving stones./Peter lays the paving stones.

  •    Peter has striven to make them smooth./Peter strives to make them smooth. (78)

  • 7. Joan catches the children peeking. /Joan caught the children peeking.

  •    Joan forbids them to peek again./Joan forbade them to peek again. (45)

  • 8. The critics see three films./The critics have seen three films.

  •    The critics broadcast their reviews. /The critics have broadcast their reviews. (64)

Noun items

  • 1. I saw the farmer’s sheaf of wheat./I saw the farmer’s sheaves of wheat.

  •    I saw the cow’s latest offspring./I saw the cow’s latest offspring. (73)

  • 2. Look at that wild deer./Look at those wild deer.

  •    And look at that wild ox!/And look at those wild oxen! (39)

  • 3. I was sure I could taste the spices./I was sure I could taste the spice.

  •    I was sure I could see the lice./I was sure I could see the louse. (16)

  • 4. Have you heard of this species?/Have you heard of those species?

  •    Did you know about this crisis?/Did you know about these crises? (15)

  • 5. I’m sure that was an owl over there./I’m sure that was an owlet over there.

  •    I’m sure that was a goose over there./I’m sure that was a gosling over there. (40)

  • 6. Mr Bentley sat in the kitchen./Mr Bentley sat in the kitchenette.

  •    Mr Bentley pointed to the pig./Mr Bentley pointed to the piglet. (55)

  • 7. The one in charge was the priest./The one in charge was the priestess.

  •    The one who came was a widower./The one who came was a widow. (39)

  • 8. It would take a heroine to save the day./It would take a hero to save the day.

  •    It would take a sorceress to break the spell./It would take a sorcerer(63)

Mean percentage of Noun/Verb attribution given by participants to each pseudoword, in each task type. N = 25 for each pseudoword, or N = 17 for values given in italics.

  Task type
Sentence construction Sentence judgement Pseudoword judgement
Noun Verb Noun Verb Noun Verb
Noun-like triplets
-ac chilac 64 24 92 8 77 23
tresac 84 16 65 35 88 12
gromac 65 24 40 60 76 24
-asm lurdasm 80 20 64 59 71 29
torlasm 76 6 41 24 68 32
mirtasm 88 4 76 36 68 32
-iff borniff 52 32 64 36 59 41
darniff 40 36 65 35 64 36
kriliff 77 24 52 48 76 24
-int sharint 60 32 64 36 65 35
tromint 44 48 65 35 76 24
bretint 30 35 56 44 72 28
-ion ellion 92 4 80 20 82 18
arnion 64 24 71 29 68 32
estion 94 6 68 32 80 20
-ior telior 64 24 72 28 76 24
sudior 64 24 35 65 72 28
ganior 82 12 52 48 64 36
-is welkis 76 16 76 24 71 29
fintis 72 12 71 29 60 40
barmis 60 18 64 36 76 24
-ium lorium 88 4 68 32 77 23
sedium 84 12 71 29 80 20
lotium 94 6 64 36 76 24
-oon rintoon 68 28 64 36 77 23
sorpoon 68 24 65 35 72 28
tensoon 77 12 44 56 76 24
-ush stinush 60 24 60 40 41 59
pretush 56 36 71 29 40 60
sartush 65 24 40 60 64 36
Verb-like triplets  
-aim artaim 48 28 40 60 77 23
erlaim 60 32 77 23 52 48
ursaim 77 23 68 32 44 56
-ede monede 84 12 48 52 24 76
telede 48 40 47 53 48 52
ramede 59 29 68 32 48 52
-erge sonerge 48 40 52 48 53 47
roserge 80 16 76 24 36 64
toperge 82 18 36 64 20 80
-erve asgerve 36 40 44 56 18 82
olverve 36 52 53 47 24 76
inderve 29 65 64 36 16 84
-ieve lotieve 56 40 52 48 24 76
carieve 48 44 35 65 52 48
senieve 29 41 44 56 20 80
-oice intoice 44 48 60 40 35 65
arnoice 68 12 53 47 56 44
olnoice 53 18 52 48 28 72
-olve panolve 48 48 52 48 29 71
warolve 60 32 65 35 32 68
fetolve 47 35 52 48 20 80
-ounce ilounce 16 80 40 60 12 88
etounce 32 60 59 41 0 100
asounce 29 65 36 64 8 92
-act tanact 52 32 68 32 59 41
lotact 64 32 47 53 48 52
saract 58 24 52 48 64 36
-end sanend 60 32 52 48 41 59
futend 52 40 53 47 44 56
torend 35 53 44 56 40 60
Control triplets  
-ide tramide 56 20 52 48 35 65
prelide 36 56 82 18 60 40
droside 41 29 24 76 40 60
-eal sadeal 60 20 64 36 53 47
woreal 52 32 53 47 48 52
tiseal 47 35 56 44 72 28
-old fanold 44 44 72 28 65 35
perold 60 24 59 41 92 8
tagold 65 24 48 52 72 28
-eat saneat 60 24 68 32 53 47
tudeat 64 24 59 41 64 36
poleat 60 24 80 20 56 44
-ear tarnear 68 20 60 40 82 18
gormear 48 32 47 53 48 52
lerdear 60 29 40 60 56 44
-ense estense 40 24 80 20 24 76
ordense 36 16 59 41 40 60
arlense 65 24 52 48 36 64
-ust pitust 48 36 72 28 53 47
monust 56 28 59 41 60 40
narust 65 18 68 32 76 24
-ate pormate 40 44 36 64 23 77
cantate 48 48 53 47 20 80
sordate 41 53 32 68 28 72
-en praten 52 32 52 48 71 29
spanen 76 20 65 35 60 40
frinen 47 29 76 24 72 28
-ert promert 32 40 60 40 47 53
trenert 60 20 47 53 72 28
spanert 65 30 80 20 32 68

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kemp, N., Nilsson, J. & Arciuli, J. Noun or verb? Adult readers’ sensitivity to spelling cues to grammatical category in word endings. Read Writ 22, 661–685 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-008-9140-z

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-008-9140-z

Keywords

  • Grammatical category
  • Grammatical awareness
  • Orthography
  • Reading
  • Spelling
  • Adults