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Passive Voice and Children

asked 2015-03-19 13:39:06 -0500

anonymous user


How old are children when they begin to comprehend passive verbs? Specifically, when are they able to correctly parse the relation between actors and verbs so that, given the sentence ''The lion was being chased by the tiger,'' they know that the tiger was doing the chasing?

Bex Millard

(Transferred from old LINGUIST List Ask-a-Linguist site)

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answered 2015-03-19 13:40:02 -0500

anonymous gravatar image

updated 2015-03-19 13:43:06 -0500

it depends. There are several types of passives.

Most passives in natural conversation do not have overt agents, and most full passives are nonreversible, meaning that if the subject and object were switched, the resulting sentence would be unacceptable. A full passive such as you used is therefore quite rare. I don't know the exact age at which they're mastered, but I can tell you that even adults have problems processing them.

Susan D Fischer

Hi, Bex,

Somehow, this query got buried in my email and I just ran across it. Psycholinguistic experiments have shed a little light on this question from a slightly different angle. Each language has what is called a 'canonical order' for different types of sentences and constituents. This is normally the most common order for the type of sentence. Even languages like Latin or Spanish, which supposedly have free word order, are subject to the canonical order in each language. This has the following effect on your topic: in every language, there are ways of focusing or emphasizing certain parts of a sentence for different stylistic or grammatical effects. Usually, this involves placing at least some parts of the sentence in 'non-canonical' positions. In experiments with various languages, it has been found that perfectly grammatical sentences, but which are in non-canonical order, have a strong tendency to be interpreted as if they were in canonical order, and this happens in many cases even when pragmatic expectations, the grammar of the language, and even common sense occasionally, would be violated. And these experiments have usually been done with adults, so it is no surprise that non-canonical orders, whether the result of rules like the passive, or due to other focus effects, can cause problems for children and other learners of a language, and are, partly for that reason, acquired later in the language-learning process.


James L Fidelholtz

As Professor Fischer points out, passive constructions vary quite a lot. This is true both within and across languages, which impacts age of acquisition including in child simultaneous multilingualism.

These two books have some discussion on variation and age of acquisition of passives in (mostly monolingual) child English:

Eve V Clark, First Language Acquisition

The Blackwell Handbook of Language Development

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira

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Asked: 2015-03-19 13:39:06 -0500

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Last updated: Mar 19 '15