Agreement and Memory (Christopher Hammerly, 5/11)

Agreement is weird. Agreement in English is especially weird, because we can’t seem to make up our minds about whether we want it or not (the answer is no, guys, come on, it’s not that hard). Making up our minds seems to be a common problem, though, especially when it comes to sentences like “The key to the cabinets is behind the sofa”. Chris Hammerly talks about why this sentence in particular is so often misconjugated.


Agreement holds between a noun and a verb, despite the distance. “To be” is conjugated as “are” when the noun is “the frogs”. It can happen between both objects and subjects in English. Example: Which pizza are the brothers eating?

English agrees over number and person for nouns and verbs, but other languages may do more (French – nouns and verbs, determiners, adjectives, participles, and quantifiers).

Agreement is weird, even just subject verb agreement.

  • Some languages have no agreement, some have lots of agreement
  • It’s redundant
  • Varies a lot over dialects
  • People make mistakes but it exists

Why does agreement occur?

  • A vestige of times before word order?
  • Additional information? (So that people can miss sounds and still understand)

Competence and performance is a division from the work of Chompsky

  • Competence – idealized knowledge of language, instinctive, what could happen, grammar
    • “The subject agrees with the verb”
  • Performance – actual behavior (we can’t actual construct a sentence with 100 words in between the noun and the verb, people would forget)
    • A process by which we check for subject-verb agreement

To study this, we combine principles from formal linguistics, where we describe an idealized system, and psychology, where we have findings about cognition’s organization and structure

Memory – Short term memory can hold 1-7 “chunks” and is very accurate and easily accessible (but fleeting). As time passes and/or you encounter new chunks, the chunks either pass into the buffer or are brought into short term memory. The chunks can be readied for storage or erased. Long term memory contains all the chunks that are kept, where are indexed somehow.

An experiment was done where a series of sentences were said and the participants raised their hands.

  • The runner on the road is jogging so fast the bicyclist can’t keep up
  • The soup in the bowls are going to get cold if they don’t get eaten soon <- this one is mistakingly labelled grammatically correct about 65% of the time
  • The eggs in the refrigerator are starting to rot and should be thrown out
  • The umbrellas next to the couch is drying quicker than he expected

The singular-noun plural-prepositional-phrase often trips people up (compared to plural-noun singular-prepositional-phrase, which doesn’t). This is called agreement attraction.

So why does attraction only happen here?

The leading idea uses “underspecification of features”.

Imagine that everything is represented as a bundle of features. We don’t know exactly what these features are, but they may include things like “animate”, “human”, “plural”, “male”, etc. These features let us group things and filter.

However, in a system like this, a singular noun is not represented by the presence of a “singular” feature. It is the default (unmarked) form whereas a plural noun is marked. It is underspecified.


The soup in the bowls are going to get cold

“The soup” is labelled as the subject, “the bowls” is labelled as plural, and “are” is labelled as plural and the verb.

In normal processing, people may predict the next features that will be given using knowledge. If a preposition is giving, we can expect a prepositional phrase. Retrieval is also initiated over the memory of the sentence to check for problems.

Two theories of agreement attraction

  • Misrepresentation – The subject is always retrieved, but sometimes it has the wrong number feature because our memory is flawed.
    • The soup in the bowls are going to get cold – You get “the soup”, recognize the subject feature, recognize the preposition and the plural feature, and the plural feature percolates (65% of the time) up to “infect” the subject, when the verb is reached it thinks “the soup” has a plural feature
  • Misretrieval – The representation is correct, but the wrong thing is retrieved.
    • The soup in the bowls are going to get cold – Same, but this one says that when the verb is reached, retrieval happens over “subject” and “plural”. Sometimes the brain accidentally gets “the bowls” instead of “the soup” (or at least their labels).

Misretrieval is (for a variety of reasons) now the leading theory. One of these reasons is that by studying other constructions, percolation seems unlikely. Possibly both happen.

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