Much ado about nothing: Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior

Document Type

Conference Presentation



Conference Title

Annual Meeting of the Association for Behavior Analysis


Association for Behavior Analysis


San Antonio, TX

Conference Dates

May 28-June 1, 2010

Date of Presentation



Some have suggested that the definition of verbal behavior offered by B. F. Skinner fails to capture the essence of language insofar as it is too broad and not functional. In this presentation I will argue that the ambiguities of Skinner’s definition are not an indictment of it and suggestions to the contrary are problematic because they suffer a critical error of scientific reasoning. Some also have suggested that Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior is entirely conceptual and therefore in need of experimental evidence to support it. I will argue that Skinner’s taxonomy is a thoroughgoing analysis of the types of stimulus control that can develop over units of “verbal” behavior and is therefore supported by decades of basic behavioral research. However, one might reasonably question whether Skinner’s analysis captures all of the phenomena comprising language. I will discuss the potential implications of this question and argue that it does not undermine Skinner’s analysis but rather it suggests that more work of a similar type might be necessary.

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