Born in the USA

a comparison of modals and nominal quantifiers in child language

Vincenzo Moscati, Jacopo Romoli*, Tommaso Federico Demarie, Stephen Crain

*Corresponding author for this work

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One of the challenges confronted by language learners is to master the interpretation of sentences with multiple logical operators (e.g., nominal quantifiers, modals, negation), where different interpretations depend on different scope assignments. Five-year-old children have been found to access some readings of potentially ambiguous sentences much less than adults do (Lidz and Musolino, Lang Acquis 13(2):73–102, 2006; Musolino, Universal Grammar and the acquisition of semantic knowledge, 1998; Musolino and Lidz, Lang Acquis 11(4):277–291, 2003, among many others). Recently, Gualmini et al. (Nat Lang Semant 16:205–237, 2008) have shown that, by careful contextual manipulation, it is possible to evoke some of the putatively unavailable interpretations from young children. Their proposal is quite general, but the focus of their work was on sentences involving nominal quantifiers and negation. The present paper extends this investigation to sentences with modal expressions. The results of our two experimental studies reveal that, in potentially ambiguous sentences with modal expressions, the kinds of contextual manipulations introduced by Gualmini and colleagues do not suffice to explain children’s initial scope interpretations. In response to the recalcitrant data, we propose a new three-stage model of the acquisition of scope relations. Most importantly, at the initial stage, child grammars make available only one interpretation of negative sentences with modal expressions. We call this the Unique Scope Assignment (USA) stage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-115
Number of pages37
JournalNatural Language Semantics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2016. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Ambiguity resolution
  • Language acquisition
  • Modals
  • Negation
  • Quantifiers
  • Scope ambiguities

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