Natural Language Semantics

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 79–115 | Cite as

Born in the USA: a comparison of modals and nominal quantifiers in child language

  • Vincenzo Moscati
  • Jacopo Romoli
  • Tommaso Federico Demarie
  • Stephen Crain
Open Access


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.


Language acquisition Negation Scope ambiguities Quantifiers Modals Ambiguity resolution 


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© The Author(s) 2016

Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vincenzo Moscati
    • 1
  • Jacopo Romoli
    • 2
  • Tommaso Federico Demarie
    • 3
  • Stephen Crain
    • 4
  1. 1.Università degli studi di Siena, Complesso San NiccolòSienaItaly
  2. 2.School of CommunicationUlster UniversityNewtownabbeyUK
  3. 3.Singapore University of Technology and DesignSingaporeSingapore
  4. 4.Department of Linguistics, Australian Hearing HubMacquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia

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