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Subject–auxiliary inversion errors and wh-question acquisition: ‘what children do know?’

    • Published online: 01 February 2000

The present paper reports an analysis of correct wh-question production and subject–auxiliary inversion errors in one child's early wh-question data (age 2; 3.4 to 4; 10.23). It is argued that two current movement rule accounts (DeVilliers, 1991; Valian, Lasser & Mandelbaum, 1992) cannot explain the patterning of early wh-questions. However, the data can be explained in terms of the child's knowledge of particular lexically-specific wh-word+auxiliary combinations, and the pattern of inversion and uninversion predicted from the relative frequencies of these combinations in the mother's speech. The results support the claim that correctly inverted wh-questions can be produced without access to a subject–auxiliary inversion rule and are consistent with the constructivist claim that a distributional learning mechanism that learns and reproduces lexically-specific formulae heard in the input can explain much of the early multi-word speech data. The implications of these results for movement rule-based and constructivist theories of grammatical development are discussed.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Caroline Rowland, Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Derby, Mickleover Site, Derby DE3 5GX, UK. e-mail:
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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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