Is she patting Katie? Constraints on pronominal reference in 30-month olds

Cynthia Lukyanenko, Anastacia Conroy, Jeffrey Lidz

In this study we investigate young children’s knowledge of syntactic constraints on noun phrase reference, by testing 30-month-olds’ interpretation of two types of transitive sentences. In a preferential looking task, we find that children prefer different interpretations for transitive sentences whose object NP is a name (e.g., She’s patting Katie) as compared with those whose object NP is a reflexive pronoun (e.g., She’s patting herself). They map the former onto an other- directed event (one girl patting another) and the latter onto a self-directed event (one girl patting her own head). These preferences are carried by high-vocabulary children in the sample, and suggest that 30-month-olds have begun to distinguish between different types of transitive sentences. Children’s adult-like interpretations are consistent with adherence to Principles A and C of Binding Theory, and suggest that further research using the preferential looking procedure to investigate young children’s knowledge of syntactic constraints may be fruitful.