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Child Processing of VP Ellipsis Constructions (Callahan et al., 2012)

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journal contribution
posted on 18.12.2021, 00:11 by Sarah M. Callahan, Matthew Walenski, Tracy Love
Purpose: To examine children’s comprehension of verb phrase (VP) ellipsis constructions in light of their automatic, online structural processing abilities and conscious, metalinguistic reflective skill.
Method: Forty-two children ages 5 through 12 years listened to VP ellipsis constructions involving the strict/sloppy ambiguity (e.g., “The janitor untangled himself from the rope and the fireman in the elementary school did too after the accident.”) in which the ellipsis phrase (“did too”) had 2 interpretations: (a) strict (“untangled the janitor”) and (b) sloppy (“untangled the fireman”). We examined these sentences at a normal speech rate with an online cross-modal picture priming task (n = 14) and an offline sentence–picture matching task (n = 11). Both tasks were also given with slowed speech input (n = 17).
Results: Children showed priming for both the strict and sloppy interpretations at a normal speech rate but only for the strict interpretation with slowed input. Offline, children displayed an adultlike preference for the sloppy interpretation with normal-rate input but a divergent pattern with slowed speech.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that children and adults rely on a hybrid syntax-discourse model for the online comprehension and offline interpretation of VP ellipsis constructions. This model incorporates a temporally sensitive syntactic process of VP reconstruction (disrupted with slow input) and a temporally protracted discourse effect attributed to parallelism (preserved with slow input).


This research was funded by National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Grant R01-DC03885 and is dedicated to the memory of David Swinney.