The Effect of Word Frequency on Noun and Verb Definitions: A Developmental Study

Marinellie, Sally A.; Yen-Ling Chan
October 2006
Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research;Oct2006, Vol. 49 Issue 5, p1001
Academic Journal
Purpose: Word frequency has profound effects in word recognition and production tasks. Here the influence of word frequency on definitions was investigated, and it was hypothesized that word frequency would have significant influence on responses provided for definitions of nouns and verbs. Method: Students from Grades 4, 7, 10, and college wrote definitions for high- and low-frequency nouns and verbs and rated their familiarity with the stimulus words. In the noun study, definitions were coded with the semantic response categories "use/purpose," "description," "association/relation," "partial explanation," "explanation," and "error." "Partial explanation" and "explanation" responses were subcategorized to code for use of critical attributes of meaning and class terms. In the verb study, definitions were coded for "synonym," "association/relation," "class," "partial explanation," "explanation," and "error." Results: Results indicated that certain response categories (such as a class term or a critical attribute) were more characteristic in definitions of high- compared with low-frequency words, whereas responses (such as nonspecific class) were more characteristic in low- compared with high-frequency words. In addition, certain response categories increased with age (such as use of class terms and critical attributes), while errors decreased with age. Familiarity ratings served to validate the high- and low- frequency nature of the stimulus words. Conclusions: In general, word frequency had a significant impact on word definitions. Implications are discussed with respect to word familiarity, representation in the mental lexicon, acquisition of word meaning, and shared linguistic knowledge.


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