Edited by Kristen Syrett and Sudha Arunachalam
[Trends in Language Acquisition Research 24] 2018
► pp. 276–298
One of the major challenges on the path to becoming an adult speaker arises from ambiguous sentences – sentences that are in principle compatible with multiple interpretations. In this chapter, I review experimental evidence from a series of studies run with children age four to six years, focusing on three cases of sentential ambiguity. The first is the case of ambiguity of question-answer relations arising from the interaction of wh-phrases and universal quantifiers. The second is ambiguity resulting from covert movement of a quantificational phrase yielding different interpretations of verb phrase ellipsis. The third is the interpretation of comparative constructions involving pronominal reference. In each instance, a successful interpretation depends on one or more successful abstract syntactic-semantic operations, for which the child must deploy special forces. But as history tells us with such operations outside of the grammar, not every operation is a success, and failures (in this case, retrieval of a non-target interpretation, or the generation of interpretations beyond the target one), can either indicate the child’s developing linguistic capacity or the extent to which the range of possibilities presented by the adult grammar may have been underestimated.