The retreat from overgeneralization in child language acquisition: word learning, morphology, and verb argument structure

B. Ambridge, J. M. Pine, C. F. Rowland, F. Chang, A. Bidgood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This review investigates empirical evidence for different theoretical proposals regarding the retreat from overgeneralization errors in three domains: word learning (e.g., *doggie to refer to all animals), morphology [e.g., *spyer, *cooker (one who spies/cooks), *unhate, *unsqueeze, *sitted; *drawed], and verb argument structure [e.g., *Don't giggle me (c.f. Don't make me giggle); *Don't say me that (c.f. Don't say that to me)]. The evidence reviewed provides support for three proposals. First, in support of the pre-emption hypothesis, the acquisition of competing forms that express the desired meaning (e.g., spy for *spyer, sat for *sitted, and Don't make me giggle for *Don't giggle me) appears to block errors. Second, in support of the entrenchment hypothesis, repeated occurrence of particular items in particular constructions (e.g., giggle in the intransitive construction) appears to contribute to an ever strengthening probabilistic inference that non-attested uses (e.g., *Don't giggle me) are ungrammatical for adult speakers. That is, both the rated acceptability and production probability of particular errors decline with increasing frequency of pre-empting and entrenching forms in the input. Third, learners appear to acquire semantic and morphophonological constraints on particular constructions, conceptualized as properties of slots in constructions [e.g., the (VERB) slot in the morphological un-(VERB) construction or the transitive-causative (SUBJECT) (VERB) (OBJECT) argument-structure construction]. Errors occur as children acquire the fine-grained semantic and morphophonological properties of particular items and construction slots, and so become increasingly reluctant to use items in slots with which they are incompatible. Findings also suggest some role for adult feedback and conventionality; the principle that, for many given meanings, there is a conventional form that is used by all members of the speech community. WIREs Cogn Sci 2013, 4:47-62. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1207 For further resources related to this article, please visit the WIREs website.|The authors declare no conflict of interest.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-62
Number of pages16
JournalWiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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