Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-nmvwc Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-16T00:24:32.765Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Subject and object omission in children's early transitive constructions: A discourse-pragmatic approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2014

Max Planck Child Study Centre and University of Manchester
University of Manchester
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, and University of Manchester
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Anna Theakston, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL, UK. E-mail:


This paper investigates discourse effects on the provision of both subjects and objects and investigates whether pragmatic discourse features govern the realization/omission of both constituents alike. In an elicitation study, we examined how the discourse-pragmatic feature contrast, as applied to the subject, verb, or object of a transitive utterance affected the provision of elements in the remainder of the sentence when all elements were previously introduced. The results showed that 3.5-year-old children were more likely to realize a contrasted argument with a lexical noun but more likely to omit the argument when it was not part of a contrast, regardless of its subject or object status. This suggests that contrast presents a unifying discourse feature for argument omission in language development.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Allen, S. (1997). A discourse-pragmatic explanation for the subject–object asymmetry in early null arguments: The principle of informativeness revisited. In Sorace, A., Heycock, C., & Shillcock, R. (Eds.), Proceedings of the GALA ‘97 Conference on Language Acquisition (pp. 1015). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
Allen, S. (2000). A discourse-pragmatic explanation for argument representation in child Inuktitut. Linguistics, 38, 483521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Allen, S., Skarabela, B., & Hughes, M. (2008). Using corpora to examine discourse effects in syntax. In De Houwer, A. & Gillis, S. (Series Eds.) & Behrens, H. (Vol. Ed.), Trends in language acquisition research: Vol. 6. Corpora in language acquisition research (pp. 99137). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Ariel, M. (1988). Referring and accessibility. Journal of Linguistics, 24, 6587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ariel, M. (2001). Accessibility theory: An overview. In Sanders, T., Schilperoord, J., & Spooren, W. (Eds.), Text representation: Linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects (pp. 2987). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
Arnold, J. E., & Griffin, Z. (2007). The effect of additional characters on choice of referring expressions: Everyone counts. Journal of Memory and Language, 56, 521536.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Arnold, J. E., Losongco, A., Wasow, T., & Ginstrom, R. (2000). Heaviness vs. newness. The effects of structural complexity and discourse status on constituent ordering. Language, 76, 2855.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chomsky, N., & Lasnik, H. (1993). Principles and parameters theory. In Jacobs, J., von Stechow, A., Sternefeld, W., & Vennemann, T. (Eds.), Syntax: An international handbook of contemporary research (pp. 505569). Berlin: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Clancy, P. M. (1993). Preferred argument structure in Korean acquisition. In Clark, E. V. (Ed.), Proceedings of the 25th Annual Child Language Research Forum (pp. 307314). Stanford, CA: SSLI.Google Scholar
Donaldson, M. L., & Cooper, L. S. M. (2009). Children's production of verb–phrase anaphora in a spoken task. Journal of Child Language, 36, 449470.Google Scholar
Du Bois, J. W. (1987). The discourse basis of ergativity. Language, 63, 805855.Google Scholar
Freudenthal, D., Pine, J. M., & Gobet, F. (2007). Understanding the developmental dynamics of subject omission: The role of processing limitations in learning. Journal of Child Language, 34, 83110.Google Scholar
Greenfield, P. M., & Smith, J. (1976). The structure of communication in early language development. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Goldberg, A. E. (2001). Patient arguments of causative verbs can be omitted: The role of information structure in argument distribution. Language Sciences, 23, 503524.Google Scholar
Gundel, J. K., Hedberg, N., & Zacharski, R. (1993). Cognitive status and the form of referring expressions in discourse. Language, 69, 274307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Howell, D. C. (1992). Statistical methods for psychology. Belmont, CA: Duxbury Press.Google Scholar
Huang, C. T. J. (1984). On the distribution and reference of empty pronouns. Linguistic Inquiry, 15, 531574.Google Scholar
Huang, C. T. J. (1989). Pro-drop in Chinese: A generalized control theory. In Jaeggli, O. & Safir, K. (Eds.), The null subject parameter (pp. 185214). Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
Hyams, N. (1992). A reanalysis of null subject in child language. In Weissenborn, J., Goodluck, H., & Roeper, T. (Eds.), Theoretical issues in language acquisition: Continuity and change in development (pp. 249267). Hillside, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Hyams, N., & Wexler, K. (1993). On the grammatical basis of null subjects in child language. Linguistic Inquiry, 24, 421459.Google Scholar
Lambrecht, K. (1994). Information structure and sentence form. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Matthews, D., Lieven, E., Theakston, A., & Tomasello, M. (2006). The effect of perceptual availability and prior discourse on young children's use of referring expressions. Applied Psycholinguistics, 27, 403422.Google Scholar
Paradis, J., & Navarro, S. (2003). Subject realization and crosslinguistic interference in the bilingual acquisition of Spanish and English. Journal of Child Language, 30, 123.Google Scholar
Pérez-Leroux, A. T., Pirvulescu, M., & Roberge, Y. (2008). Null objects in child language: Syntax and the lexicon. Lingua, 118, 370398Google Scholar
Salomo, D., Graf, E., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. (2011). The role of perceptual availability and discourse context in young children's question answering. Journal of Child Language, 31, 918931.Google Scholar
Salomo, D., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2010). Young children's sensitivity to new and given information when answering predicate-focus questions. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 101115.Google Scholar
Serratrice, L. (2008). The role of discourse and perceptual cues in the choice of referential expressions in English pre-schoolers, school-age children and adults. Language Learning and Development, 4, 309332.Google Scholar
Serratrice, L., & Sorace, A. (2003). Overt and null subjects in monolingual and bilingual Italian acquisition. In Beachley, B., Brown, A., & Conlin, F. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 27th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 739750). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.Google Scholar
Serratrice, L., Sorace, A., & Paoli, S. (2004). Crosslinguistic influence at the syntax–pragmatics interface: Subjects and objects in English–Italian bilingual and monolingual acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 7, 183205.Google Scholar
Skarabela, B. (2007). Signs of early social cognition in children's syntax: The case of joint attention in argument realization in child Inuktitut. Lingua, 117, 18371857.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Theakston, A. L. (2012). “The spotty cow tickled the pig with a curly tail”: How do sentence position, preferred argument structure, and referential complexity affect children's and adults’ choice of referring expression? Applied Psycholinguistics, 33, 691724.Google Scholar
Valian, V. (1991). Syntactic subjects in the early speech of American and Italian children. Cognition, 40, 2181.Google Scholar
Valian, V., Hoeffner, J., & Aubry, S. (1996). Young children's imitation of sentence subjects: Evidence of processing limitations. Developmental Psychology, 2, 153164.Google Scholar
Valian, V., Prasada, S., & Scarpa, J. (2006). Direct object predictability: Effects on young children's imitation of sentences. Journal of Child Language, 33, 247269.Google Scholar
Yang, C. (2004). Universal grammar, statistics, or both. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 451456.Google Scholar