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“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?



In this study, 5-year-olds and adults described scenes that differed according to whether (a) the subject or object of a transitive verb represented an accessible or inaccessible referent, consistent or inconsistent with patterns of preferred argument structure, and (b) a simple noun was sufficient to uniquely identify an inaccessible referent. Results showed that although adults did not differ in their choice of referring expression based on sentence position, 5-year-olds were less likely to provide informative referring expressions for subjects than for objects when the referent was inaccessible. In addition, under complex discourse conditions, although adults used complex noun phrases to identify inaccessible referents, 5-year-olds increased their use of pronominal/null reference for both accessible and inaccessible referents, thus reducing their levels of informativeness. The data suggest that 5-year-olds are still learning to integrate their knowledge of discourse features with preferred argument structure patterns, that this is particularly difficult in complex discourse contexts, and that in these contexts children rely on well-rehearsed patterns of argument realization.


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ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Anna L. Theakston, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK. E-mail:


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