In This Article Acceptability Judgments

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Linguistics Acceptability Judgments
Jon Sprouse
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0097


Acceptability judgments form a substantial portion of the empirical foundation of nearly every area of linguistics (e.g., phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics) and nearly every type of linguistic theory. As the name implies, acceptability judgments are consciously reported perceptions of acceptability that arise when native speakers attempt to comprehend a (spoken or written) utterance, whether it be a syllable, (non)word, or sentence, and are asked to answer a question such as “How natural/acceptable/grammatical is this utterance?” Although there is quite a bit of variation in both the form of the instructions given and the response scales employed during acceptability judgment collection, all acceptability judgment tasks share the following assumptions: (1) acceptability is a property of utterances, (2) the grammatical status of the utterance strongly (but not necessarily uniquely) influences the acceptability of the utterance, (3) native speakers can consciously perceive the acceptability of utterances, and (4) native speakers can consciously report their perceptions of acceptability. For space reasons, this bibliography will focus exclusively on the use of acceptability judgments in the domain of syntax. Furthermore, because a complete bibliography of every use of acceptability judgments in the syntax literature would be impractical, this bibliography will focus on higher-level questions regarding the use of acceptability judgments for hypothesis testing. It should also be noted that even this restricted subset of the syntactic acceptability judgment literature does not easily lend itself to a linear, topic-by-topic bibliography, as most of the major works tend to cover several of the relevant topics. This, plus style constraints, has led to some subjectivity in the allocation of references in some sections. In general the goal has been to collect the most relevant references for each topic, with a preference for references that have appeared since the publication of previous comprehensive reviews.

General Overviews

Chomsky 1965 is generally cited as the first comprehensive argument in support of an acceptability-centric approach to syntactic data collection. Newmeyer 1983 provides a comprehensive introduction to the field of generative linguistics, with lucid discussions of its goals, scope, and the types of evidence that bear on generative theories. Schütze 1996 provides a comprehensive review of the acceptability judgment literature prior to the mid-1990s, and as such discusses many of the issues that will be covered in this bibliography in some detail. Acceptability judgments in syntax can generally be divided into two types based on the method of collection: traditionally collected judgments, which generally involve relatively informal collection procedures, and formally collected judgments, which generally involve the formal collection procedures familiar from experimental psychology. Through its discussion of the (participant and task) factors that may affect acceptability judgments, Schütze 1996 provides a comprehensive introduction to the properties of both traditional judgment collection and formal judgment collection. Marantz 2005 presents one of the most accessible discussions of traditional judgment collection methods as both a behavioral experiment and evidence for syntactic theories (as part of a comprehensive discussion of the role of linguistic theories in cognitive neuroscience). Cowart 1997 is a textbook that provides a comprehensive introduction to formal judgment collection methods. Myers 2009 is a review article that covers many of the questions that have been raised concerning the reliability and sensitivity of both traditional and formal collection methods.

  • Chomsky, N. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An influential book that discusses both the goals and methodology of generative approaches to syntax.

  • Cowart, W. 1997. Experimental syntax: Applying objective methods to sentence judgments. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the first (and currently only) textbook devoted solely to acceptability judgment collection. Topics include a discussion of the utility of formal judgment experiments, an introduction to experimental design and statistical analysis, and a tutorial in the use of Microsoft Excel for constructing experiments.

  • Marantz, A. 2005. Generative linguistics within the cognitive neuroscience of language. Linguistic Review 22:429–445.

    DOI: 10.1515/tlir.2005.22.2-4.429E-mail Citation »

    This is a broad discussion of the role of linguistic theories in the field of cognitive neuroscience. Among other topics, it discusses the properties of traditional data collection methods, how they are a type of informal behavioral experiment, and how the nonstandard collection and reporting customs in syntax may be obscure the relevance of syntactic theories to the cognitive neuroscience of language. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Myers, J. 2009. Syntactic judgment experiments. Language and Linguistics Compass 3:406–423.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00113.xE-mail Citation »

    This article reviews many of the issues surrounding the collection of acceptability judgments, such as the reliability and sensitivity of both formal and traditional methods, and reviews many of the arguments in favor of formal experiments. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Newmeyer, F. 1983. Grammatical theory: Its limits and its possibilities. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book presents a comprehensive introduction to the goals and scope of generative linguistics, including the use of acceptability judgments as evidence for linguistic theories.

  • Schütze, C. T. 1996. The empirical base of linguistics: Grammaticality judgments and linguistic methodology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A comprehensive review of the acceptability judgment literature prior to 1996, with topics ranging from the evidential role of acceptability in theories of grammar, to concerns about the reliability of traditionally collected acceptability judgments.

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