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Cognitive Linguistics

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Pronoun co-referencing errors: Challenges for generativist and usage-based accounts

Danielle Matthews1 / Elena Lieven1 / Anna Theakston1 / Michael Tomasello1

1University of Manchester

Correspondence address: Danielle Matthews, Max Planck Child Study Centre, School of Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester, M13 9PL. UK. E-mail: 〈

Citation Information: Cognitive Linguistics. Volume 20, Issue 3, Pages 599–626, ISSN (Online) 1613-3641, ISSN (Print) 0936-5907, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/COGL.2009.026, August 2009

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This study tests accounts of co-reference errors whereby children allow “Mama Bear” and “her” to co-refer in sentences like “Mama Bear is washing her” (Chien and Wexler, Language Acquisition 1: 225–295, 1990). 63 children aged 4;6, 5;6 and 6;6 participated in a truth-value judgment task augmented with a sentence production component. There were three major finding: 1) contrary to predictions of most generativist accounts, children accepted co-reference even in cases of bound anaphora e.g., “Every girl is washing her” 2) contrary to Thornton and Wexler (Principle B, VP Ellipsis and Interpretation in Child Grammar, The MIT Press, 1999), errors did not appear to occur because children understood referring expressions to be denoting the same person in different guises 3) contrary to usage-based accounts, errors were less likely in sentences that contained lower as opposed to higher frequency verbs. Error rates also differed significantly according to pronoun type (“him”, “her”, “them”). These challenging results are discussed in terms of possible processing explanations.

Keywords:: language acquisition; anaphora; binding; pronouns; truth-value judgment task; frequency; quantifiers

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