In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children’s Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Glossaries
  • Edited Collections
  • Corpora
  • Journals
  • Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition
  • Positive and Negative Evidence
  • Structure Dependence
  • Functional Structure
  • Root Infinitive Stage
  • Negation
  • Pro-Drop
  • Case
  • Relative Clauses
  • Control
  • Passives
  • Methodology for Language Acquisition

Linguistics Children’s Acquisition of Syntactic Knowledge
Rosalind Thornton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0058


Children the world over pass through stages as they gradually converge on the adult language of their community. Language acquisition researchers are interested not only in documenting these steps, but also in understanding the mechanisms that account for children’s developmental path. The acquisition of syntactic knowledge is a relative newcomer to linguistic inquiry, becoming of serious interest to linguists in the 1960s, after Chomsky challenged Skinner’s idea that language is just a form of behavior, in this case “verbal behavior,” that is learned through positive and negative reinforcement. Chomsky argued that human beings must be specially designed to acquire language, given the complexity of the linguistic knowledge we all achieve in the face of the “poverty of the stimulus,” that is, the lack of rich and detailed information in the input data. He suggested that humans are born with innate linguistic knowledge known as “Universal Grammar” that guides acquisition of language. The debate over whether language is learned from the input purely by experience (“nurture”) or whether there is an innate component (“nature”) that interacts with the input children receive has dominated the field since the 1960s, and controversy continues today. In this article, the Chomskyan view that children are born with an innate Universal Grammar will be termed the “generative” viewpoint. Approaches that take the perspective that language is learned entirely from the input will be termed the “usage-based” approaches. Differences in theoretical approach inevitably mean a different research focus. Functional or usage-based linguists deny that humans are born with any innate abstract knowledge of language, and so they look to parental or caretaker input for answers about how children gain mastery of syntactic structures over time. Researchers seek to demonstrate a high correlation between a construction used by adults in the child’s environment and use of that construction, or parts of that construction, in the child’s output. Researchers studying children’s acquisition of syntax within the generative framework focus on whether or not children can be shown to demonstrate aspects of the grammar that are claimed to be innate. Researchers might study whether children have set various parameters for their language or investigate whether or not purportedly universal principles (or “constraints”) are intact in children’s grammars as early as they can be tested. This article outlines many of the topics that have been studied to date, with examples of relevant literature from both perspectives. Many of the topics are organized by construction type, but this is just for convenience of presentation. Types of constructions such as “relative clauses” or “passives” are not primitives in the generative theory but result from combinations of other operations, so syntactic development is not seen to develop construction by construction. It should be kept in mind that this article’s organization conceals the fact that in the generative framework apparently unrelated constructions can be tied together by a principle of grammar (e.g., Principle C) or by a particular type of movement (e.g., A-movement) or a particular type of relationship (e.g., c-command).


There are a number of textbooks on children’s acquisition of language. Textbooks written within the developmental psychology tradition such as Hoff 2014 are broad in their coverage and make a useful introduction for students who have little background in linguistics. Most textbooks written by linguists are written from a particular theoretical perspective. Crain and Lillo-Martin 1999 is an introductory textbook written from the perspective of Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. It is unique in that it prefaces each chapter discussing acquisition of syntax (or semantics) with a chapter detailing the necessary theoretical background. Guasti 2017 also assumes a generative perspective, but is much more advanced. Students who cover the material in Guasti 2017 will be well prepared to tackle primary literature. A more neutral approach to the field is O’Grady 1997. There are three recent textbooks written from a usage-based perspective: Saxton 2017 is very readable and has a useful chapter introducing the usage-based perspective. Clark 2017 is an introductory text focusing on the parental input, and properties of the discourse and pragmatics. The most advanced text of the three is Ambridge and Lieven 2011. Its novel contribution is to compare generative and usage-based approaches to language acquisition, but readers should be aware that the authors’ own orientation is the usage-based perspective. Readers who would like to consult a text on generative syntax could read Carnie 2012, which is a widely used introductory textbook.

  • Ambridge, Ben, and Elena Lieven. 2011. Child language acquisition: Contrasting theoretical approaches. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975073

    The first text that attempts to compare how generative and usage-based theories (i.e., the constructivist theory) explain various empirical phenomena.

  • Carnie, Andrew. 2012. Syntax: A generative introduction. 3d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A widely used representative introductory syntax textbook.

  • Clark, Eve. 2017. Language in children. New York: Routledge.

    Written from a usage-based perspective, this introductory text emphasizes the role of the adult input to children and how children learn to converse and understand social aspects of language.

  • Crain, Stephen, and Diane Lillo-Martin. 1999. An introduction to linguistic theory and language acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Each chapter on children’s acquisition of syntax or semantics is prefaced with a chapter outlining the relevant linguistic theory. No previous study of linguistics is assumed.

  • Guasti, Maria Teresa. 2017. Language acquisition: The growth of grammar. 2d. ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    An advanced generative acquisition text that gives excellent coverage of a wide range of phenomena.

  • Hoff, Erika. 2014. Language development. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: CENGAGE.

    A broad introduction to language development that makes a good starting place for readers with no background in linguistic theory. Limited coverage of the acquisition of morphology and syntax.

  • O’Grady, William. 1997. Syntactic development. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226620787.001.0001

    Useful for its summaries of various phenomena and the related experimental studies that have been carried out.

  • Saxton, Matthew. 2017. Child language: Acquisition and development. 2d ed. London: SAGE.

    An excellent introductory text that is very accessible and assumes no prior background knowledge.

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