Lecturer's Précis - McCarthy and Warrington (1985)

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First published online 10:00 GMT 11th December 2003, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [2.0 - copyright] 09:00 BST 9th July 2018.

See firstly the introduction to the phenomenon of agrammatism in our e-paper on "Speech Errors, Speech Production Models, and Speech Pathology" (Section 6.5).


McCarthy and Warrington (1985) on "Category Specificity in an Agrammatic Patient"

McCarthy and Warrington (1985) report clinical case study material on ROX, a 42-year-old male accountant, who slowly developed severe agrammatism during 1983-1984 as a result of a progressive degenerative brain disease. ROX was administered a wide variety of tests at the National Hospital throughout 1984, and early testing revealed that he was unable to cough, laugh, sneeze, or yawn either to direct verbal command, or if requested to imitate such actions on the part of the examiner. However, this impairment could not be attributed to a motor system problem because ROX had been observed making all these actions spontaneously. Moreover, the nature of his errors was highly unusual, thus .....

"..... when asked to yawn or imitate the examiner yawning he made the appropriate manual gesture whilst saying, '... boredom ... boredom'. Similarly, when asked to cough or imitate a cough he explosively uttered 'cough'." (p713).

Subsequent detailed testing indicated a "marked difficulty" (p717) in understanding verb phrases, which was traced to problems with "case marking morphology" (for example, the difference between he and him) and tense. ROX was also specifically tested on action naming. A set of common action names was prepared which the examiner would present in mime (eg. by kicking, waving, coughing, etc.). ROX was tested on the same items three times during a single day, about three hours apart, and corrected on those he failed on. He succeeded in naming 57% of the mimes at the first attempt, 76% at the second attempt, and 86% on the third. Other visual skills - face recognition, reading, and coping with unusual views - were more or less preserved.

A similar test was then carried out using "action picture" cards, and ROX's typical response was "to respond to each picture with a phrase or sentence-like series of words" (p719), rather than with the succinct and appropriate action name. Thus for a picture of a farmer carrying a sack of potatoes, the response was: "This man is a sack of potatoes". Other observed repair strategies were to transform one of the key nouns into a verb by adding the "-ing" suffix [Example (1) below], to use a semantically related verb [Example (2) below], to use "made" as a general purpose replacement verb [Example (3) below], or to add a preposition [Example (4) below] .....

Example 1: "The child was laddering" (target = climbing)

Example 2: "The diver was swimming" (target = diving)

Example 3: "The man is made the coal" (target = carrying)

Example 4: "The man is going up the crate" (target = lifting)

McCarthy and Warrington interpreted their observations as indicating "a category-specific degradation of the meaning of certain classes of words and in particular verbs" (p724).