People constantly use language to learn about the world. Computational linguists have capitalized on this fact to build large language models (LLMs) that acquire co-occurrence-based knowledge from language corpora. LLMs achieve impressive performance on many tasks, but the robustness of their world knowledge has been questioned. Here, we ask: do LLMs acquire generalized knowledge about real-world events? Using curated sets of minimal sentence pairs (n=1215), we tested whether LLMs are more likely to generate plausible event descriptions compared to their implausible counterparts. We found that LLMs systematically distinguish possible and impossible events (The teacher bought the laptop vs. The laptop bought the teacher) but fall short of human performance when distinguishing likely and unlikely events (The nanny tutored the boy vs. The boy tutored the nanny). In follow-up analyses, we show that (i) LLM scores are driven by both plausibility and surface-level sentence features, (ii) LLMs generalize well across syntactic sentence variants (active vs passive) but less well across semantic sentence variants (synonymous sentences), (iii) some, but not all LLM deviations from ground-truth labels align with crowdsourced human judgments, and (iv) explicit event plausibility information emerges in middle LLM layers and remains high thereafter. Overall, our analyses reveal a gap in LLMs' event knowledge, highlighting their limitations as generalized knowledge bases. We conclude by speculating that the differential performance on impossible vs. unlikely events is not a temporary setback but an inherent property of LLMs, reflecting a fundamental difference between linguistic knowledge and world knowledge in intelligent systems.
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