Approaching gradience in acceptability with the tools of signal detection theory


Intuitive judgments of sentence acceptability form the empirical basis of experimental syntax, and an important component of many psycholinguistic investigations (Cowart, 1997; Schutze, 1996). For this reason, one central methodological concern for experimental syntacticians is how best to collect and analyze acceptability judgment data. Experimental syntacticians continue to extend and refine the tools used to measure sentence acceptability. In this chapter we seek to contribute to this methodological expansion. We discuss the difficulties inherent in getting a quantitatively precise measurement of sentence acceptability. We suggest that the tools of signal detection theory can be applied to common acceptability judgment. This analytical approach offers both an explicit theory of how speakers give acceptability judgments in the context of a rating task, and yields more precise measurements of sentence acceptability. The approach we outline builds on the work of previous researchers advocating similar approaches to acceptability data (e.g. Bader & Häussler, 2010; Mauner, 1995). The central goal of our chapter is to make the tools of Signal Detection Theory accessible to experimental syntacticians; to this end, we present a specimen experiment and a worked, tutorial-style analysis of acceptability judgment data using Signal Detection Theory.

In Jon Sprouse (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Experimental Syntax