To Absurity and Beyond;
ABA and Word Meaning
to absurdity and beyond.jpg

From a behavior analytic perspective, according to Moore (2002), word meaning "Is to be found to the extent to which an utterance enters into contingencies affecting the listener’s behavior. The most common way for the utterance to affect the listener’s behavior is to function as a discriminitive stimulus". Thus, within such a scheme, the meaning of the word "ball" is the question, "Tell me something round". Of course this could apply to other things that are round, so the meaning of the word sun, tire, face, globe, bubble, coin, ferris wheel is "something that is round? Does this mean that according to a behavior analytic perspective a coin, a face, bubbles, tires, globes, suns, are all the same things since they have the same meaning? And similarly, since a football and rugby ball are not round does this mean they're not balls? We know what a ball is... and by simple ostensive definition... we know when someone knows its meaning if they simply point to that thing we call a 'ball'... for which there multiple examples. But a face, a ferris wheel, a bubble or a tire are never going to be one of the things pointed to when asked for the meaning of 'ball'.

As English speakers, we can say we know the meaning of the words, coin, sun, bubbles, face as demonstrated in our ability to use and respond to them. This is not confusing for us. We also know that if these words had the same meaning, we would be able to use them interchangeably just as we know that 'large' and 'big' mean the same things because we can use them interchangeably.  But, as English speakers, we wouldn't say,"Give me that sun", when asking for a coin because we know what each word means.

Similarly, while some words can sometimes be used interchangeably, i.e., the words "good" and "well", they do not mean the same things. Therefore, while we might say, 'All is well' or 'All is good', we don't say, 'It tastes well' or 'I had a well time'. (This is permitted in common use, even if such use gives grammarians conniptions.) Behavior analysis is of no help here. Language plays by its own rules and doesn't yield to the reductionistic efforts of behavior analysis. Mixing conceptual schemes of language and verbal behavior (behavior analysis), leads to nonsense , confusion and misguided intervention.


The focus here is language. To learn a language is to learn a linguistic practice. In order to participate in a linguistic practice, learning word meaning is foundational. Within behavior analysis, the take on word meaning takes us to the limits of absurdity. Knowing if someone understands the meaning of a word is manifest in appropriate use and the ability to appropriately respond to words. Thus, we can say with a great degree of certainty that if a person uses the word kick so that they say things like, "Kicked the ball to Sally", or that they "kick a can down the road", "kick ideas around", kick up their heels, "kick someone out of a game", "kick a habit","kick a dead horse", or 'get a kick out of you", this would be evidence of their understanding of the word 'kick'; that they know what the word means; they know how and when to use it. 

In ordinary language instruction, our efforts target word use. Use determines meaning; And, the same word may have different uses, thus different meanings. One can say they 'had a ball' . But to say this could have several meanings. In one case the word 'ball' is used to refer to the toy. In another it's used to refer to a good time, and in another it refers to a fancy party. Different uses also need to be accounted for in a comprehensive language based intervention efforts for children with autism.

Additionally, language instruction concerns teaching youngsters how to do things with words...that what we say as language users has a point.
For example in a game of tennis, Sally may say,  "Your ball hit the net, again." Such a statement could be used for different effect. Is Sally's point to make an assertion, to accuse her opponent of being a bad player, or to cajole? Her opponent, Johnny may respond and say,  "It did not. My serves are always perfect." Is his statement a playful retort or refutation? Context, the nature of their relationship and their history will clarify the point in this episode. Not science. These are the kinds of moves we can make in language; The kinds of things we can do with words and the direction in which we need to be moving in intervention. Making such moves is often spoken of as language pragmatics. That is fine too.

Such considerations are not a part of a verbal behavior analytic world view. 'Control and prediction' is paramount in behavior analysis. But language is an anthropological/cultural phenomenon and does not lend itself to 'scientific' explanation. (And if you think 'response generalization' accounts for these kinds of moves in language...these moves in language games, I should point out that within behavior analysis, there is little agreement about what response generalization actually is. And pressed to account for the enormous variability and range in responding, any such 'scientific efforts' quickly hit a wall.) 

Verbal behavior analysis is concerned with what a word or utterance "is" (what kind of verbal operant it is). This kind of analysis has nothing to do with word use / what we do with words. Pedantic ramblings about whether something is a tact, a mand, whether there is joint control, if it is a defective mand etc. misdirects efforts towards teaching language. 

Let's consider an example. In a VB analysis offered by Vince Carbone, which included a 90 slide 'analysis' of "yes" and "no" (once available online, but now offered for CEUs in some other iteration), his 'verbal analysis' lead to the conclusion that, "The behavior of saying 'no' was brought under the discriminative stimulus control of "tacting the absence of joint control". I have no idea what this means. First, saying that it is possible to tact something that is not present violates the definition of a tact. The definition of a tact precludes such things. Thus, within a verbal analysis scheme, this analysis makes no sense.  And, even if it were possible (which it's not), wouldn't the ability to tact the absence of something first require an ability to tact it? Does this mean that children who utter 'no' are able to tact 'joint control'? (... and from the presentation the answer is "yes"... since, according to Carbon, saying "yes" is an indication of such abilities...). Wowza!

More important is the question, "How is this analysis helpful to those trying to teach children how to use and respond to the word 'no'.
How does this analysis guide and inform teaching. If we want children to learn about the word 'no', all we need to do is teach children how to use it.  We all know that the word 'no' is used to refuse, reject, warn, refute, to disallow etc. Concerning the use of "no"is not about joint control , but rather it's to recognize that what sits behind the use of yes/no is 'correspondence' or 'agreement'. E.g., It is to ask, for example, if there is correspondence/agreement between one's desire and what is offered, i.e., do you want a cookie?, (Yes, I do want a cookie, "No, I don't want a cookie) "Please clean your room" (I don't want to) or if there correspondence between facts, e.g., Is a ball an animal, or "Did you go to the store?" No convoluted VB analysis or theory is necessary. All we have to concern ourselves with when teaching a children to use 'no' is to follow the use of the word to learn its meaning, to ensure that constituent abilities are in place and to contrive arrangements (along with rigorous practice) in order to get appropriate use in play under the appropriate circumstances. So that children are in the game. And as always, the use of behavioral tools, techniques and procedures is essential for constructing intervention engineered toward progressive mastery of a technique of language.
Just my two cents.