Misha Becker

photo: Chris Carmichael

Misha Becker


Spring 2018: on leave

Linguistics Department
University of North Carolina
301 Smith Building, CB#3155
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3155
919-962-1192 (Linguistics office)

email: mbecker (at) email.unc.edu

Research Interests Lab Courses CV Recent Publications

Research Interests

My background is in syntactic theory and the acquisition of syntax, both morphosyntax and argument structure, in children (monolingual first language). I'm also interested in bilingualism, language revitalization, Specific Language Impairment, computational modeling of language learning, learnability theory, and experimental methodologies for studying implicit linguistic knowledge.

For the past decade or so my research has focused on how children learn "displacing" predicates. These are verbs and adjectives that do not select an external argument (subject) and thus allow another NP to be "displaced" into the subject position. Displacing predicates include raising verbs (e.g. seem or appear), tough adjectives (easy), and unaccusative verbs (arrive). My main question is how children distinguish these predicates from control verbs (want or claim), control adjectives (eager), and unergative verbs (laugh). These are predicates that do select an external argument but occur in superficially similar sentence environments (e.g. John seems/claims to like pizza). The answer I have pursued is that NP animacy provides a crucial cue: encountering a predicate with an inanimate subject should tell learners that the predicate is a displacing predicate.

CUP book In 2014 I published a book about how NP (in)animacy helps children acquire displacing predicates.

In addition, I have on-going collaborative projects with:

  • Kristen Lindquist (UNC Social Psychology) on children's acquisition of emotion words and recognition of emotion in facial expressions
  • Benjamin Frey (UNC American Studies) on Cherokee language revitalization in conjunction with the New Kituwah school in western North Carolina
And past collaborations with:
  • Megan Gotowski (Rutgers) on children's acquisition of wh-questions in French and English
  • W. Garrett Mitchener (Mathematics, College of Charleston) on developing a computational learning algorithm to model how children acquire the distinction between raising and control verbs, and other pairs of displacing and non-displacing predicates;
  • Bruno Estigarribia (Romance Languages, UNC) on experiments with adults and children to discover how sentential factors (e.g. subject animacy) influence individual's inferences about novel raising/control verbs and tough/control adjectives;

My graduate work focused more on the acquisition of morphosyntax and aspect. My dissertation is on the acquisition of the copula (be) in English (Becker, M. 2000. The development of the copula in child English: The lightness of be, UCLA) is available here (apologies for the quality of the trees and the table/page alignment!). A text version of the abstract is available here.

Selected Recent Publications


Papers and Presentations

Please e-mail me to request any papers without links!


  • Becker, M. (2017) "Learning the 'tough' Constructions," Contact Magazine. (link)
  • Becker, M. (2017) "Resetting the Polysynthesis Parameter: A Preliminary Proposal," in N. LaCara, K. Moulton and A.-M. Tessier (eds.), A Schrift to Fest Kyle Johnson, Linguistics Open Access Publications 1. (link)
  • Gotowski, M. and M. Becker (2016) "An Information-Structural Account of Children's Wh-In Situ Questions in French," talk presented at GALANA 6, University of Maryland, February 2015. (slides), (link)
  • Becker, M. and S. Kirby (2016) "A-Movement in Language Development" in J. Lidz, J. Pater and W. Snyder (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Developmental Linguistics, Oxford University Press.
  • Becker, M. and M. Gotowski (2015) "Explaining Children's Wh-in situ Questions: Against Economy," in Proceedings of BUCLD 39, Cascadilla Press. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. (2015) "Learning structures with derived arguments" in A. Trotzke and J. Bayer (eds.), Syntactic Complexity across Interfaces Mouton de Gruyter. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. (2014) "Animacy and the Acquisition of Tough-Adjectives" Language Acquisition (link) DOI: 10.1080/10489223.2014.928298.
  • Becker, M. & B. Estigarribia (2013) "Harder Words: Learning Abstract Verbs with Opaque Syntax" Language Learning and Development, vol. 9: 211-244.
  • Becker, M. & J. Schaeffer (2013) "Animacy, Argument Structure and Unaccusatives" in M. Becker, J. Grinstead and J. Rothman (eds.) Generative Linguistics and Acquisition: Studies in Honor of Nina M. Hyams, John Benjamins. (pdf)
  • Becker, M., B. Estigarribia and D. Gylfadottir (2012) "Tough-Adjectives are Easy to Learn" in Supplemental Proceedings of BUCLD 36. (link)
  • Mitchener, W.G. and M. Becker (2011) "A Computational Model of Learning the Raising-Control Distinction" in Research on Language and Computation, vol. 8, pp. 169-207. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. and B. Estigarribia (2011) "Drawing Inferences about Novel Raising and Control Verbs" in Proceedings of GALANA 4, Cascadilla Proceedings Project. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. (2009) "The Role of NP Animacy and Expletives in Verb Learning," Language Acquisition, vol. 16, pp. 283-296. preprint version
  • Kirby, S. and M. Becker (2007) "Which it is it? The acquisition of referential and expletive it" Journal of Child Language 34: 571-599.
  • Becker, M. (2007) "Animacy, Expletives, and the Learning of the Raising-Control Distinction", Proceedings of GALANA 2.
  • Becker, M. (2006) "There Began to be a Learnability Puzzle", Linguistic Inquiry, vol. 37:3, pp. 441-456. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. (2005) "Learning Verbs Without Arguments: The Case of Raising Verbs", Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, vol. 34:2, p. 165-191. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. (2004) "Copula Omission is a Grammatical Reflex", Language Acquisition, vol. 12:2, pp. 157-167. (pdf)
  • Becker, M. (2004) "Learning Verbs that Lack Argument Structure: The Case of Raising Verbs," in Proceedings of GALA 2003, edited by Jacqueline van Kampen and Sergio Baauw. (Word)
  • Becker, M. (2002) "Seem, and Other Hazards of the Lexicon", in Proceedings of CLS38 (ed. by M. Andronis, E. Debenport, A. Pycha & K. Yoshimura, pp. 79-90). (Word)
  • Becker, M. (2002) "The Development of the Copula in Child English: The Lightness of Be" in Annual Review of Language Acquisition, vol. 2. (pdf)

Recent Talks

  • Becker, M. and B. Frey (2017) "A Multi-pronged Approach to Revitalizing Eastern Cherokee," talk presented at the First International Conference on Revitalization of Indigenous and Minoritized Languages, University of Barcelona and University of Vic, April 2017.
  • Becker, M. (2016) "Sentence-level and Environmental Cues to Lexical Representation of Abstract Predicates," invited talk at the SynLinks Workshop at UConn (Links between Representation and Processing in Syntactic Acquistion), September 2016. (slides) (link to workshop website)
  • Becker, M. (2016) "Subject Selection in Raising and Control: Psycholinguistic Evidence," invited talk at the Conference on Nonfinite Subjects, University of Nantes, April 2016. (slides)
  • Becker, M. (2014) "Reaction Time as a Measure of Implicit Grammaticality Judgment" talk presented at Experimental Psycholinguistics Conference (ERP), Madrid, Spain, October 2014. (handout)
Last modified: December 2017