Journal of Child Language

Nouns before verbs in comprehension vs. production: the view from pragmatics 1

a1 Rhode Island College


This study examines pragmatic factors that bias English-speaking children to produce more of the nouns and fewer of the verbs that they know. If nouns are favoured for production, parents should elicit more nouns than verbs in child speech. If verb comprehension is favoured over verb production, parents should more often prompt children to produce an action than to produce a verb. Data from 44 parent–child (age 1;8) dyads in the New England directory of the CHILDES data base were analysed. Children produced more nouns than verbs but mothers produced more verbs than nouns. Speech act analyses indicate that mothers elicited noun production but rarely prompted children to produce verbs. Mothers more often prompted children to produce an action than to produce a verb, and verbs occurred most often in maternal speech acts used to elicit children's actions. Moreover, children comprehended many more verbs than they produced. These data suggest that production measures underestimate the frequency and significance of verb-learning in early lexical development.

(Received December 18 1998)
(Revised December 14 1999)

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr Beverly A. Goldfield, Psychology Dept., Rhode Island College, Mt. Pleasant Ave., Providence, RI 02908. tel: 401-456-8813. fax: 401-456-8379. e-mail:


1 I would like to thank Dr Catherine E. Snow and Dr Barbara Pan for making these transcripts available. I also thank Andrea DiCicco, Melissa Goudreau, and Gabrielle Parello for their assistance with data coding.