Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

At conceptual and linguistic levels of cognition, events are said to be represented in terms of abstract categories, for example, the sentence Jackie cut the bagel with a knife encodes the categories Agent (i.e., Jackie) and Patient (i.e., the bagel). In this paper, we ask whether entities such as the knife are also represented in terms of such a category (often labeled "Instrument") and, if so, whether this category has a prototype structure. We hypothesized the Proto-instrument is a tool: a physical object manipulated by an intentional agent to affect a change in another individual or object. To test this, we asked speakers of English, Dutch, and German to complete an event description task and a sentence acceptability judgment task in which events were viewed with more or less prototypical instruments. We found broad similarities in how English, Dutch, and German partition the semantic space of instrumental events, suggesting there is a shared concept of the Instrument category. However, there was no evidence to support the specific hypothesis that tools are the core of the Instrument category-instead, our results suggest the most prototypical Instrument is the direct extension of an intentional agent. This paper supports theoretical frameworks where thematic roles are analyzed in terms of prototypes and suggests new avenues of research on how instrumental category structure differs across linguistic and conceptual domains.

Original publication




Journal article


Cogn Sci

Publication Date





Concepts, Event cognition, Language, Semantics, Thematic roles, Tools, Cognition, Humans, Judgment, Language, Linguistics, Semantics