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Abstract categories or limited-scope formulae? The case of children's determiners*


Six tests of the spontaneous speech of twenty-one English-speaking children (1 ; 10 to 2 ; 8; MLUs 1·53 to 4·38) demonstrate the presence of the syntactic category determiner from the start of combinatorial speech, supporting nativist accounts. Children use multiple determiners before a noun to the same extent as their mothers (1) when only a and the or (2) all determiners are analyzed, or (3) when children and mothers are matched on determiner and noun types and determiner+noun tokens. (4) Overlap increases as opportunity for overlap increases: children use multiple determiners with more than 50% of nouns used at least twice with a determiner and with 80% of nouns used at least six times with a determiner. (5) Formulae play a limited role in low-MLU children's determiner usage, increasing with MLU. (6) Less than 1% of determiner uses are errors. Prior results showing no overlap are likely a sampling artifact.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Virginia Valian, Department of Psychology, Hunter College – CUNY, 695 Park Avenue, New York, NY, 10065, USA. e-mail:
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This work was supported in part by an award from the National Science Foundation to Hunter College (SBE-0123609). Earlier versions of the results were presented at the Architectures and Mechanisms of Language Processing (AMLaP) conference in Aix-en-Provence in September 2004 and at the Boston University Conference on Language Development in November 2006. We thank A. Geogo, M. Lesnick, T. Lesnick, B. Marroquín, D. Sette and C. Theodorou for their help in hand-coding and hand-analyzing computer outputs. We thank our reviewers for their detailed, thoughtful and constructive comments, which led to new data analyses.

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Journal of Child Language
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