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Assessing the reliability of textbook data in syntax: Adger's Core Syntax1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 February 2012

Department of Cognitive Sciences, University of California, Irvine
Department of Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University
Authors' addresses: (Sprouse) Department of Cognitive Sciences, University of California, 3151 Social Science Plaza A, Irvine, CA 92697-5100,
(Almeida) Department of Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University, A-621 Wells Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824-1027,


There has been a consistent pattern of criticism of the reliability of acceptability judgment data in syntax for at least 50 years (e.g., Hill 1961), culminating in several high-profile criticisms within the past ten years (Edelman & Christiansen 2003, Ferreira 2005, Wasow & Arnold 2005, Gibson & Fedorenko 2010, in press). The fundamental claim of these critics is that traditional acceptability judgment collection methods, which tend to be relatively informal compared to methods from experimental psychology, lead to an intolerably high number of false positive results. In this paper we empirically assess this claim by formally testing all 469 (unique, US-English) data points from a popular syntax textbook (Adger 2003) using 440 naïve participants, two judgment tasks (magnitude estimation and yes–no), and three different types of statistical analyses (standard frequentist tests, linear mixed effects models, and Bayes factor analyses). The results suggest that the maximum discrepancy between traditional methods and formal experimental methods is 2%. This suggests that even under the (likely unwarranted) assumption that the discrepant results are all false positives that have found their way into the syntactic literature due to the shortcomings of traditional methods, the minimum replication rate of these 469 data points is 98%. We discuss the implications of these results for questions about the reliability of syntactic data, as well as the practical consequences of these results for the methodological options available to syntacticians.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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This research was supported in part by National Science Foundation grant BCS-0843896 to Jon Sprouse. We would like to thank Carson Schütze, Colin Phillips, James Myers and three anonymous JL referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts. We would also like to thank Andrew Angeles, Melody Chen, and Kevin Proff for their assistance constructing materials. All errors remain our own.


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