The Acquisition of Scope Interpretation in Dative Constructions: Explaining children's non-targetlike performance

M.E. van der Ziel

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


    Sentences containing multiple quantified expressions often display scope ambiguity. However, in certain sentence-types scope interaction is unexpectedly restricted, for instance in double-object constructions containing an existentially quantified indirect object and a universally quantified direct object (The bear gave a fox every cake). In such cases only the existential quantifier can take wide scope. Inverse scope is blocked. This constraint is known as Scope Freezing (Larson, 1990; Bruening, 2001). Preschool children do not seem to have knowledge of this constraint, and in fact show a very distinctive performance pattern. Children reject the wide scope interpretation of the existential quantifier (a single fox is given every cake by the bear), but allow the inverse scope interpretation (every cake is given to a different fox by the bear). Their performance pattern is thus the opposite of the targetlike pattern, and therefore we named this pattern the Reverse-pattern. In this study we attempt to explain why children show the Reverse-pattern. We start out by investigating the possibility that children perform non-targetlike because they have not fully acquired the meaning of the existential quantifier(s) in question. We test predictions of both Su’s (2001) Lexical Factor Hypothesis, which argues that the non-targetlike performance is due to incomplete acquisition of the meaning of the indefinite article, and a new hypothesis called the Singleton Restriction Hypothesis which locates the problem in an inability on the part of children to use the discourse context to restrict indefinites to singleton sets. Neither hypothesis is able to capture the occurrence of the Reverse-pattern. We next turn our attention to the role of universal quantification. In a series of experiments we show that the Reverse-pattern is in fact restricted to sentences containing distributive universal quantifiers. We hypothesise that the basic interpretation of a distributive universal quantifier requires prototypical distributivity. We further hypothesise that children strongly adhere to this prototypically distributive interpretation and, unlike adults, cannot deviate from it. However, experimental evidence shows that children do not just rely on prototypical distributivity, but also require Full Set Linking (i.e. an exhaustive linking of the set of objects and recipients). This study finally argues that children get stuck in a verification strategy that adults use as a short-cut to interpretation. Whereas adults can switch interpretation strategies when required, children cannot. Rather, children attempt to accommodate situations which are not consistent with the short-cut verification strategy, leading to a reliance on Full Set Linking. All this can take place, because children are not constrained by Scope Freezing, which is argued to be an Information-Structural Constraint which is required late.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Utrecht University
    • Coopmans, Peter, Primary supervisor
    • Gualmini, Andrea, Co-supervisor
    Award date13 Jun 2012
    Place of PublicationUtrecht
    Print ISBNs978-94-6093-081-2
    Publication statusPublished - 13 Jun 2012


    Dive into the research topics of 'The Acquisition of Scope Interpretation in Dative Constructions: Explaining children's non-targetlike performance'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this