The role of utterance length and position in 3-year-olds' production of third person singular -s

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Purpose: Evidence from children's spontaneous speech suggests that utterance length and utterance position may help explain why children omit grammatical morphemes in some contexts but not others. This study investigated whether increased utterance length (hence, increased grammatical complexity) adversely affects children's third person singular -s production in more controlled experimental conditions. Method: An elicited imitation task with 12 Australian English-speaking children ages 2;9 (years;months) to 3;2 (Mage = 2;11) was conducted comparing third person singular -s production in 3-word and 5-word utterances, both utterance medially (e.g., He sits back; He sits back and swings) and utterance finally (e.g., There he sits; That's the way he sits) using a within-subjects design. Children were shown pictorial representations of each utterance on a computer and were invited to repeat 16 pseudorandomized prerecorded utterances. Acoustic analysis determined the presence/absence and duration of the third person singular morpheme. Results: Third person singular production was significantly lower utterance medially compared to utterance finally for the 5-word utterances and significantly lower utterance medially in the 5-word compared to 3-word utterances. Conclusion: These results suggest that increased utterance length results in significantly lower third person singular production, but only in the more articulatorily challenging utterance-medial position. Thus, morpheme omission is greatest at the intersection of grammatical and phonological complexity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)484-494
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014


  • Acoustic phonetics
  • Child language acquisition
  • Grammatical morphemes
  • Speech production


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