The acquisition of the active transitive construction in English: A detailed case study

Anna L. Theakston, Robert Maslen, Elena V M Lieven, Michael Tomasello

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    In this study, we test a number of predictions concerning children's knowledge of the transitive Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) construction between two and three years on one child (Thomas) for whom we have densely collected data. The data show that the earliest SVO utterances reflect earlier use of those same verbs, and that verbs acquired before 2;7 show an earlier move towards adultlike levels of use in the SVO construction and in object argument complexity than later acquired verbs. There is not a close relation with the input in the types of subject and object referents used, nor a close adherence to Preferred Argument Structure (PAS) before 2;7, but both early and late acquired verbs show a simultaneous move towards PAS patterns in selection of referent type at 2;9. The event semantics underpinning early transitive utterances do not straightforwardly fit prototype (high or inalienable) notions of transitivity, but rather may reflect sensitivity to animacy and intentionality in a way that mirrors the input. We conclude that children's knowledge of the transitive construction continues to undergo significant development between 2;0 and 3;0, reflecting the gradual abstraction and integration of the SVO and VO constructions, verb semantics, discourse pragmatics, and the interactions between these factors. These factors are considered in the context of a prototype for the transitive construction. © Walter de Gruyter.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)91-128
    Number of pages37
    JournalCognitive Linguistics
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2012


    • Construction semantics
    • Language acquisition
    • Preferred argument structure
    • Prototypes
    • Transitive construction


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