Words go together like ‘bread and butter’: The rapid, automatic acquisition of lexical patterns

Kathy Conklin, Gareth Carrol

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While it is possible to express the same meaning in different ways (‘bread and butter’ versus ‘butter and bread’), we tend to say things in the same way. As much as half of spoken discourse is made up of formulaic language, or linguistic patterns. Despite its prevalence, little is known about how the processing system treats novel patterns and how rapidly a sensitivity to them arises in natural contexts. To address this, we monitored native English speakers’ eye movements when reading short stories containing existing (conventional) patterns (‘time and money’), seen once, and novel patterns (‘wires and pipes’), seen 1-5 times. Subsequently readers saw both existing and novel phrases in the reversed order (‘money and time’; ‘pipes and wires’). In 4-5 exposures, much like existing lexical patterns, novel ones demonstrate a processing advantage. Sensitivity to lexical patterns – including the co-occurrence of lexical items and the order in which they occur – arises rapidly and automatically during natural reading. This has implications for language learning and is in line with usage-based models of language processing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)492-513
JournalApplied Linguistics
Issue number3
Early online date5 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2021


  • experience based learning
  • usage-based models
  • formulaic language
  • multi-word sequences
  • binomials


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