Some Issues in the Growth of Control

  • Kenneth Wexler
Part of the Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy book series (SLAP, volume 48)


The central problem of theoretical linguistics is the question of learnability: how is it possible for the adult to have constructed her grammar from the available input? The central problem of the study of language acquisition is essentially the same, but with an added dimension, namely, how is it possible for the child to construct her grammar from the available input over time? Thus the study of the course of language development places even heavier constraints on the linguistic learnability problem. Not only do we have to understand what’s in the child’s mind so that grammar can be ultimately selected, but we have to make sure that learnability problems that arise in the course of development can be adequately resolved. This paper is an attempt to explore some of the acquisition and learnability problems that arise when we study the development of control.


Relative Clause Language Acquisition Embed Clause Main Clause Subordinate Clause 
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  1. 1.
    I would like to thank Helen Cairns, Noam Chomsky, Helen Goodluck, Dana McDaniel and Steve Pinker for commentary on an earlier draft. Thanks also for discussion to Yu-Chin Chien, Robin Clark, Jim Higginbotham, Jim Huang, Kyle Johnson and Richard Larson. Insightful suggestions were also made by an anonymous reviewer. The author was supported by NSF Grants BNS-8820585 and INT-921177.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The following discussion of continuity and maturation closely follows the discussion in Wexler (1990b).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Constancy was the standard (usually implicit) assumption in linguistic theory related acquisition studies since their beginning as well as in such theoretical proposals as Wexler and Culicover (1980), where an explicit discussion can be found. Pinker (1984) called this view “Continuity.” Although I adopted this term in other papers, I believe it has caused some confusion, since the term “Continuity” does not seem to imply no change in underlying competence. Therefore I have called the view in (la) “Constancy.”.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Felix 1984 has argued for such a view.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    My own view is there is no such “semantic” stage. See Wexler (1984), Pinker (1984) and Hyams (1986) for discussion and support for the claim that there is no such semantic stage. See Lebeaux (1989) for arguments for a contrary view. Lebeaux believes that the stage of telegraphic speech is such a semantic stage. Lebeaux’s account involves learning how to get out of such a stage, and therefore his proposal has to explain why the child arrives in a semantic stage, why she stays there, and how she gets out of it. This leads to various learnability problems. If the stage were strictly maturational then there might not be any learnability problems. I will not go into details here.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    This can be stated (as in Borer and Wexler (1988, to appear)) by assuming that the restriction on representations follows from a “Proto Principle” holding in child grammar, the Proto Principle being a stronger (more restrictive) form of a Principle which holds in UG. Thus, with respect to the lack of argument chains, we can say that there is a Proto Theta Criterion, which requires that each argument position has a thematic role, whereas the Theta Criterion (part of UG) only requires that each Argument chain has a thematic role. Note that we do not have to require that certain types of movement can’t occur. Rather, all movement can occur and a Proto Principle will filter out certain structures.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    There are a number of further conceptual, theoretical and empirical arguments for the necessity for maturation of grammatical abilities. See Borer and Wexler (1987, 1988, to appear).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    For another attempt at a theory which meets the condition of UGCM see Guilfoyle and Noonan (1988). Basically, they assume that UG principles hold at all stages, but that certain categories to which those principles apply are maturationally not available. In particular, at early stages, functional categories are not available, so that any principle which depends for its application on such categories will not be applicable. Radford (1990) also argues that functional categories mature. These proposals run up against some extremely strong evidence that functional categories are available at very young ages. See, among others, Pierce (1989), Wexler (1990a and to appear), Hyams (1991), Weissenborn (1991), Meisel and Muller (1991) and Poeppel and Wexler (1991).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    This one was 5;3 and was in Stage IA. The child appears to be a somewhat late developer in this study. However, as discussed shortly, in the longitudinal study there were children as old as 5;2 who lacked control. And in Goodluck (1987), discussed shortly, children between 5 and 6, tested on preposed adjuncts, lacked control. Doubtless the methods used will influence the exact age at which children exhibit control, but it appears fairly consistent that it is the youngest children in each of these studies who lack control.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Note that MCH give more detailed developmental analyses, e.g., individual subject patterns in Table 4. Here I just want to briefly illustrate their results.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Goodluck and Behne (1988) for much interesting discussion of this and other issues.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    There are only a few children in Stage IA (MCH 1990): two in the non-longitudinal experiment and two in the first test of the longitudinal study, increasing to three at the next test. However, it is clear that, if these phenomena represent a grammatical stage, then it is an early stage. Thus we might not see many younger children who were in this stage because they did not appear in the experiments. The additional evidence for IB, from Goodluck (1987) is not available for IA. Thus the existence of IA is not as well-established as the existence of IB. Nevertheless the evidence for it seems good enough that I will assume it exists in what follows.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    I have ignored production data. Pinker (1984, pp. 215-218) provides a detailed discussion and analysis of this literature, plus a number of analyses of his own. The most relevant aspects of this analysis for present purposes seems to be the report that Bloom, Lightblown and Hood (1975) found a number of “subject-EQUI” verbs like want in I want sit down at about 2 years old. Moreover, (p. 216), “they also note that they could find no errors of control (e.g., I want comb hair with someone other than I as intended subject...).” If this is correct, then children seem to know early that at least these verbs demand control. However, one can imagine that it was difficult to tell the child’s intentions in many cases, so I am not sure how strong a test these data constitute. Also, there might be pragmatic factors which would bias frequencies of production. And one still has to explain the comprehension data. Pinker suggests that there is a lot of “noise” in comprehension data from act-out experiments. At any rate, I do not intend to provide a detailed discussion here, but I believe that the comprehension experiments have been consistent enough over a variety of methodologies to yield data worth considering. It should also be pointed out that Pinker (p. 388, fn. 5) writes that “Braine reports the two examples want fix it and want come on from David’s corpus where the intended agent was not David himself.” Presumably, the matrix subject is David, and the embedded subject is not David. These cases would be clear confirmation of (6). Pinker argues, however, that there is a length limitation on David’s utterance, with many obligatory constituents missing, so that David intended to put a phrase, e.g. you or Daddy, into “object position” (our subject of embedded clause position), but couldn’t. For discussion of a number of empirical problems with such output omission models, see Hyams and Wexler (1989 and to appear). Moreover, the lack of the marker to in such examples (which at an early age is almost universally missing in English) means that the grammatical analysis of the examples is not completely clear. I think it fair to say that the production data is at least equivocal on the issue of whether PRO must be controlled from the beginning. At any rate, clearly more analysis would be warranted.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    I restrict (6) to “temporal” adjuncts only because most work in development has been done with these. Very likely we should delete “temporal” in (6). See later in this paper for further discussion of this topic. Also, it is somewhat difficult to say how much time elapses between the attainment of knowledge of control in complements before knowledge of control in adjuncts. From some data in MCH it seems that 3 to 6 months is a ball park estimate. However, Goodluck’s (1987) data on preposed adjuncts suggests that the lack of knowledge of control in adjuncts might last longer. We should consider the possibility, however, that there is some grammatical consideration concerning the preposed adjunct that makes the lack of knowledge of control in adjuncts appear so late in Goodluck’s experiments (i.e. even many 6-year olds don’t have the knowledge). This issue might profitably be related to results concerning the development of binding theory and preposed constituents, but I won’t pursue the issue here.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    MC (1990b) and MCH say that they want to maintain the “Continuity Hypothesis”, but what they mean by this (so far as I can tell from their discussion) is that children’s grammatical representations conform to UG. But of course this very condition is met both by the Continuity (Constancy) Hypothesis and by UG-Constrained Maturation (cf. (1)). Therefore this condition does not discriminate between Continuity (Constancy) and (UG-Constrained) Maturation.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    As MC realize, there are cases which make (7) problematic, but I will not discuss these here. Noam Chomsky (p.c.) points out that (i) is such a case, since PRO does not have to be the crowd, although PRO is c-commanded by the crowd (i) The crowd was too angry PRO to hold the meeting.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Noam Chomsky (p.c.) points out that there are languages in which the equivalent of Why to do it? is a grammatical main clause. The operator might have something to do with such a possibility, and there is no operator in the infinitival main clause proposal under discussion.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    See Pierce 1989 for the relation of the development of tense marking in English to the earlier development in French.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    See Hyams (1986) and much subsequent work, including Pierce (1989), Hyams and Wexler (1989,1991).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Lebeaux (1988) basically assumes that previous structures are “fallen into” by the child because the parser cannot parse the current structure that the child has. Thus the parser would have to mature (Lebeaux doesn’t say this explicitly, but it seems to be implied or entailed by what he does propose). But Lebeaux gives no evidence that the parser is responsible for the more primitive structures being fallen into.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Borer and Wexler (1987).Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    The data I discuss were presented by Helen Goodluck at the Boston University Conference on Language Development, Oct. 22, 1988, as an “ongoing” experiment. Goodluck, Sedivy and Foley (1989) seems to show more complete data, with the conclusions remaining the same.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See Wexler (1989) for the hypothesis that it is at least these properties that the child is trying to preserve when she makes a syntactic analysis.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    See the discussion in Borer and Wexler (1987, 1988, to appear).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Pinker (1984) argues that the child does have such structures at a not very late age. If the child didn’t have them it might be for reasons independent of the considerations advanced in the text.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    If we think of the Case Filter as being a condition on visibility at LF, as is often done, then the Proto Filter says that all NPs must be visible.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    It is worth noting that (22–23) can be expressed naturally in the notational system for order of acquisition of Lebeaux (1988). That is, we would state them as (i). (i) * (lexical) NP if it is-Case In Lebeaux’s notation, the information in parentheses cannot be read. The general rule of development is: “remove parentheses.” So at the earlier age every NP must have case, and after development, when the parentheses in (i) have been removed, only lexical NPs must have case. Some of Lebeaux’s conclusions, like aspects of this notational and learning system, are reminiscent of UG-Constrained Maturation. Some of them are not, however, for example, the possibility of early states existing which don’t satisfy UG and the “recycling” of markedness structures of learning, so that a markedness structure which had an effect at an earlier age can come back and have an effect with a different structure, at a much later age.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    The basis for the argument is certain scopal ambiguities observed by Geis (1970). Namely, (i) is ambiguous. (i) John left before Mary said that he did Larson argues that the reading in which the time before which John left is the time of the most embedded clause (John left before the time x such that Mary said [that John left at x]) is obtained at LF by moving the temporal operator from the most embedded clause to the next clause up.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Since I plays no role in the discussion of (24) I have not indicated it.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    One problem is that the control (-ing) forms don’t show the Geis ambiguities. That is, (ia) is not scopally ambiguous (compare (ib)). (i) (a) John kissed Mary before saying that he did (b) John kissed Mary before he said that he did I assume that the lack of the ambiguity in (ia) is for some independent reason.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    I would like to thank Kyle Johnson for pointing out the relevance of the Case Filter to the empty operator analysis of temporal phrases. Johnson also points out that (24) must have an empty operator and thus, if the child understood (24) it would be evidence against the ETOL analysis. In this regard it is interesting that there was a series of studies in the 1970’s (E. Clark, among others) which claimed that children didn’t understand sentences with temporal subordinating conjunctions like before and after (with tensed complements to the conjunctions like (24)) until quite late. Most of the literature on control doesn’t seem to report whether children actually understand these temporal prepositions correctly in sentences like (24).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    We might ask why the child doesn’t decide that after can take a non-tensed sentential complement without an empty operator, that is (26). It might be that this kind of sentence has a special property so that it also is not allowed in a case position, though see (iv) below. More likely, the thematic interpretation of the sentence relating its time to the time of the matrix might not be possible given a sentential analysis, without a temporal operator. Note that after can take a tensed sentence complement, or an NP, but not a non-tensed complement. (i) Bill left after the game (ii) Bill left after Sam left (iii) *Bill left after Sam leaving (iv) Bill told Sam about Susan leaving the game At any rate, we can assume that whatever prevents (iii) will prevent the child from assuming that (26) is a good representation. It might be that the empty operator in (2b) prevents the temporal preposition from governing and assigning case to the subject of the embedded clause, thus allowing PRO.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    An anonymous reviewer points out that there might be a further strong test of the ETOL explanation of (6b). Namely, the Geis effects either do not hold or are weaker for adjuncts with while. (i) Mary sang the song while her mother promised to be listening to the radio For many speakers (i) cannot mean that “Mary sang the song during an interval x, for x an interval during which Mary’s mother had promised to be listening to the radio.” If the lack of the Geis ambiguities mean that there are no empty operators in (i) (following Larson (1988)), then children who are in stage IB (where they accept external control into temporal adjuncts like (2b), repeated here) should not accept external control into very similar while adjuncts like (ii). (2b) Cookie Monster touches Grover after PRO jumping over the fence (ii) Cookie Monster touches Grover while PRO jumping over the fence I do not know of any developmental studies with while, but to the extent that the judgment concerning (i) is correct, the prediction seems correct, and it would be important to test it.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    In McDaniel, Cairns and Hsu (1990), there are some children who accept only object control and some children who accept subject or object control.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Goodluck and Behne (1988) have made cogent arguments against the proposal that adjuncts (incorrectly) attach to VP in some children. First, children in their study allowed a non c-commanding NP object of a by-phrase to control PRO in a temporal adjunct. Clearly, this is impossible even with VP attachment (i.e. the NP object of by can’t c-command PRO). Second, if temporals are attached in VP, children should allow an object gap in them. Children don’t allow such gaps very often; they do allow a gap in purpose clauses a bit more. However, their most striking finding in this domain is that in purpose clauses children have a hard time understanding the gap (see our discussion in section 3 below). So the evidence from the lack of the gap in temporals that temporals don’t attach in VP is not strong. Helen Goodluck (p.c.) has also pointed out that the fact that children won’t allow extraction from temporal adjuncts (Goodluck, Sedivey and Foley (1989) — see our discussion of (15d–17d)) can be construed as a further argument against VP attachment. For if the temporal phrase was in the VP, it would be L-marked and extraction would be allowed. This abstracts away from other properties of temporal operators, assuming that the lack of extraction possibility is (at least partially) due to the adjunct status of the phrase. This seems to be correct; extraction is not allowed from temporal adjuncts when their objects are NP’s. (i) * Which game did Mary contact John before t.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Chomsky (class lectures, Fall 1989) has argued that reflexives in Topic position, like (34b) are not bound, but are emphatic. If this turns out to be correct, then the prediction won’t hold. In fact, if the rest of the predictions concerning CT are true, but (34b) is good for children, then this might provide further evidence that the Topic position can’t be bound.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Tom Roeper (p.c.) has suggested that young children produce sentences like (i) milk is to drink and that such sentences have an empty operator which has referential features transmitted to it, thus providing evidence against the Constraint on Transference (35). I don’t know of any actual evidence that children at the appropriate age produce sentences like (i) but, for argument’s sake, let’s suppose that (i) is a child sentence. Presumably the analysis that would contradict CT (35) is given in (ii). (ii) milki is O, PRO to drink t i If milk transmits referential features to the empty operator O then CT is violated and children shouldn’t be able to represent sentences like (ii). At first sight it would be surprising for (i) to be easy for children, given the difficulty they have on tough-movement, as discussed later in this section. On the other hand there may be a difference between tough-movement and sentences like (i). Note that in (ii) the empty operator is the head of the phrase which is predicated of the subject. Thus referential features may not be transmitted to this operator in the same way as they would for tough-movement or for sentences like (31). Clearly more theoretical analysis, as well as experimentation, is needed.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    It had been assumed that children follow the “Minimum Distance Principle”, and thereby don’t analyze (39b) correctly. It has often been thought that the MDP is some kind of processing principle or strategy. But why should children follow this principle? More critically, (39b) is misanalyzed until a quite late age, an age when there are all sorts of violations of a strategy which says close items in a structure must be related.Google Scholar


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