The modifier effect: Default inheritance in complex noun phrases.


The modifier effect is the reduction in judged likelihood of a generic statement (Apples are sweet) when the subject is modified (Chinese apples are sweet). Connolly, Fodor, Gleitman and Gleitman, (2007) argued that this effect undermines the principle of default property inheritance in conceptual combination. In a series of studies, we replicated the effect and its interaction with modifier typicality. We elicited justifications for the judgments, and found three common accounts were given – pragmatics, knowledge-based reasoning, and uncertainty about attribute inheritance. We also showed that the mutability of a property for the subject concept affected its judged likelihood when the concept was modified, and that likelihood judgments were correlated between modified and unmodified versions of sentences. It is argued that contrary to the claims of Connolly et al., the modifier effect provides clear evidence for the default inheritance of prototypical properties in modified concepts.

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