Children’s early acquisition of the passive: evidence from syntactic priming

Katherine Thatcher, Holly P. Branigan, Janet F. McLean, Antonella Sorace

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


We report an experiment that examined 3- and 4-year-old children’s representation of the passive structure. Early studies of typically-developing children’s acquisition of the passive suggest that this construction is acquired late and – or that its acquisition is semantically constrained: children comprehend actives much earlier than passives and comprehend actional verb passives earlier than non-actional verb passives (Maratsos, Fox, Becker & Chalkley, 1985). Conversely, some production studies have shown the passive is acquired earlier than thought: 3-4 year old children produce passives following training (Brooks & Tomasello, 1999) and priming (Huttenlocher, Vasilyeva & Shimpi, 2004), however, such studies have not examined whether the passive is constrained to actional verbs early on. We report a syntactic priming study that manipulated Prime Structure (active vs. passive) and Verb Type (actional vs. non-actional). We found a strong and reliable effect of Prime Structure for children (27%) and adult controls (19%). There was, however, no effect of Verb Type (Fs <2). Participants were more likely to produce passive targets following passive primes than active primes, irrespective of the verb. We conclude that children do acquire an abstract syntactic representation for the passive early on (by 3-4 years)that is not constrained by verb type.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 2007 Child Language Seminar
Subtitle of host publication30th anniversary
EditorsTheodoros Marinis, Angeliki Papangeli, Vesna Stojanovik
Place of PublicationReading
PublisherUniversity of Reading
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes
EventChild Language Seminar 2007: 30th anniversary - University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom
Duration: 18 Jul 200720 Jul 2007
Conference number: 30


SeminarChild Language Seminar 2007
Abbreviated titleCLS 2007
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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