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Who is the agent? The influence of pragmatic leads on children's reference assignment in non-obligatory control*

  • VIKKI JANKE (a1)

Non-obligatory control constructions (NOC) are sentences which contain a non-finite clause with a null subject whose reference is determined pragmatically. Little is known about how children assign reference to these subjects, yet this is important as our current understanding of reference-resolution development is limited to less complex sentences with overt elements, such as pronouns. This study explores how seventy-six children (aged six to eleven) consult pragmatic leads when assigning reference in two examples of NOC. Children undertook three picture-selection tasks, containing no lead, a weak lead, and a strong lead, and their reference choices in the critical sentences were monitored. The novel results pinpoint children's baseline interpretations of the ambiguous sentences and expose an age trend in the degree to which they consult strong pragmatic leads when resolving reference. These trends illustrate how reference assignment in more complex discourse-governed contexts progresses, thereby contributing an important dimension to the pragmatics acquisition literature.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Vikki Janke, Department of English Language & Linguistics, School of European Culture & Languages, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NX. e-mail:
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Warmest thanks to the staff, children, and parents at Herne CE Junior School, Kent, Wittersham CEP School, East Sussex; St Edwards Catholic Primary School, Sheerness, Kent, and St Peters Primary School, Canterbury, Kent. Thanks also to Donna Mulhall for help with data collection. For useful comments, I am grateful to Laura Bailey and Christina Kim, and also to audiences at the LAGB 2015 and BUCLD 40. For statistical support and advice, my thanks to Gordon Craig. I also gratefully acknowledge three anonymous reviewers' constructive criticisms and suggestions.

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Journal of Child Language
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