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Children's ability to answer different types of questions*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 March 2012

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Address for correspondence: Elena Lieven; Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany. e-mail:


Young children answer many questions every day. The extent to which they do this in an adult-like way – following Grice's Maxim of Quantity by providing the requested information, no more no less – has been studied very little. In an experiment, we found that two-, three- and four-year-old children are quite skilled at answering argument-focus questions and predicate-focus questions with intransitives in which their response requires only a single element. But predicate-focus questions for transitives – requiring both the predicate and the direct object – are difficult for children below four years of age. Even more difficult for children this young are sentence-focus questions such as “What's happening?”, which give the child no anchor in given information around which to structure their answer. In addition, in a corpus study, we found that parents ask their children predicate-focus and sentence-focus questions very infrequently, thus giving children little experience with them.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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We thank Kristin Wolter, Ronny Barr and Claudia Salomo for their help in creating the stimuli. Thanks to Roger Mundry for statistical guidance.



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