“The tiger is hitting! the duck too!” 3-year-olds can use prosodic information to constrain their interpretation of ellipsis

Letícia Kolberg, Alex de Carvalho, Mireille Babineau, Naomi Havron, Anne Caroline Fiévet, Bernadete Abaurre, Anne Christophe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This work aims to investigate French children's ability to use phrasal boundaries for disambiguation of a type of ambiguity not yet studied, namely stripping sentences versus simple transitive sentences. We used stripping sentences such as “[Le tigre tape]! [Le canard aussi]!” (“[The tiger is hitting]! [The duck too]!”, in which both the tiger and the duck are hitting), which, without the prosodic information, would be ambiguous with a transitive sentence such as “[Le tigre] [tape le canard aussi]!” (“[The tiger] [is hitting the duck too]!”, in which the tiger is hitting the duck). We presented 3-to-4-year-olds and 28-month-olds with one of the two types of sentence above, while they watched two videos side-by-side on a screen: one depicting the transitive interpretation of the sentences, and another depicting the stripping interpretation. The stripping interpretation video showed the two characters as agents of the named action (e.g. a duck and a tiger hitting a bunny), and the transitive interpretation video showed only the first character as an agent, and the second character as a patient of the action (e.g. the tiger hitting the duck and the bunny). The results showed that 3-to-4-year-olds use prosodic information to correctly distinguish stripping sentences from transitive sentences, as they looked significantly more at the appropriate video, while 28-month-olds show only a trend in the same direction. While recent studies demonstrated that from 18 months of age, infants are able to use phrasal prosody to guide the syntactic analysis of ambiguous sentences, our results show that only 3-to-4-year-olds were able to reliably use phrasal prosody to constrain the parsing of stripping sentences. We discuss several factors that can explain this delay, such as differences in the frequency of these structures in child-directed speech, as well as in the complexity of the sentences and of the experimental task. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence on the role of prosody in constraining parsing in young children.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104626
StatePublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a PhD fellowship from CAPES ( Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior , Brazil) [Grants 88881.188983/2018-01 and 88882.329599/2018-01 ] to Leticia Kolberg; by a Research Grant from the Fyssen Foundation to Alex de Carvalho [Grant Eotp RH03J20AFO04_EDENFCOGN° H03R8240 ]; and by grants from the Fondation de France , and the French National Research Agency ANR [grant numbers: ANR-13-APPR-0012 LangLearn, ANR-17-CE28‐0007-01 LangAge, and ANR-17-EURE-0017 FrontCog].

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.


  • Ellipsis
  • Phrasal prosody
  • Preferential looking
  • Sentence processing
  • Syntactic acquisition
  • Syntactic ambiguity resolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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