LINGUIST List 25.340

Mon Jan 20 2014

Review: Lang. Acq.; Psycholing.; Semantics; Syntax: Van der Ziel (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 29-Aug-2013
From: Lyn Tieu <>
Subject: The Acquisition of Scope Interpretation in Dative Constructions
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Marie-Elise Van der Ziel
TITLE: The Acquisition of Scope Interpretation in Dative Constructions
SUBTITLE: Explaining Children's Non-Targetlike Performance
SERIES TITLE: LOT dissertation Series
PUBLISHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Lyn Tieu, Ecole Normale Supérieure

This volume investigates a curious non-adult-like performance pattern
displayed by children in their interpretation of quantifier-scope interaction
in double-object constructions. Focusing on children acquiring Dutch, the
author presents a series of experiments that establish the non-target-like
pattern, dubbed the ‘Reverse-pattern’, and tests a number of lexically-based
hypotheses about the source of the non-target-like behaviour. With evidence
that the non-target-like performance is restricted to sentences containing
distributive universal quantifiers, the author provides an account of the
Reverse-pattern that attributes children’s non-target-like scope
interpretations to a non-adult-like ability to revise an initial
interpretation strategy.

Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for the discussion. The object of study is the
Frozen Scope Constraint (FSC), exemplified in double-object (DO) constructions
such as (1). Unlike the 'to'-dative construction in (2), (1) is scopally
unambiguous: only the surface scope interpretation, on which the indirect
object scopes over the direct object, is available.

(1) The car salesman showed a man every car. (a>>every; *every>>a)
(2) The car salesman showed every car to a man. (a>>every; every>>a)

Van der Ziel reviews two alternative accounts of the FSC: Bruening’s (2001)
syntactic account, and Goldberg’s (2006) information-structural account. Van
der Ziel ultimately adopts Goldberg’s account, according to which the indirect
object in the DO construction tends to take wide scope due its (secondary)
topic status. On the assumption that DPs higher on the topicality scale
typically scope above DPs lower on the topicality scale, van der Ziel suggests
that when a speaker chooses to produce a DO construction over the ‘to’-dative,
this signals that the new information to be conveyed concerns the theme of the
action (the direct object) and not the recipient (the indirect object).
Goldberg’s account predicts that scope freezing should be acquired as soon as
children have acquired the secondary topic status of the indirect object.

Chapter 2 carefully establishes the non-target-like ‘Reverse-pattern’ in
children’s interpretation of DO constructions such as (3).

(3) The bear gave a hedgehog every piece of cake.

In (3), the FSC blocks the inverse, distributive reading whereby the universal
scopes over the indefinite. Van der Ziel presents a series of experiments
using the truth value judgment task, the results of which suggest that
English- and Dutch-speaking preschool children lack knowledge of the FSC. More
puzzling, they not only allow the reading blocked by the FSC, they reject the
one interpretation that adults allow. The critical test sentences contain an
indefinite and a universally quantified NP (as in (3)), and are presented in
two kinds of contexts: a distributive ‘ALL>ONE’ context, in which each piece
of cake is given to a different hedgehog, and a
non-(prototypically-)distributive ‘ONE>ALL’ context, in which a single
hedgehog receives all the pieces of cake. Given the FSC, the sentence in (3)
should only be true in a ONE>ALL context. Testing a variety of structures,
including DO constructions, ‘to’-datives, scrambled ‘to’-datives, and simple
transitive sentences, van der Ziel finds the Reverse-pattern surfacing at a
rate of 38-52%. She then argues that the Reverse-pattern cannot be attributed
to non-target-like scope assignment, incomplete acquisition of DO datives, or
a lack of exhaustive pairing.

Having laid out the experimental evidence for the Reverse-pattern, van der
Ziel devotes the next two chapters to lexical factors that may give rise to
the Reverse-pattern. Chapter 3 develops and tests hypotheses that relate the
Reverse-pattern to incomplete acquisition of the indefinite article. On the
one hand, a modified version of Su’s (2001) Lexical Factor Hypothesis posits
that children exhibiting the Reverse-pattern have not fully acquired the
meaning of the indefinite article ‘a’/‘an’; this predicts that the
Reverse-pattern should be restricted to this particular indefinite. On the
other hand, Krämer’s (2000) Non-Integration Account and the Singleton
Restriction Hypothesis (SRH) (building on Schwarzschild’s (2002) theory of
indefinites) posit that children have not fully acquired the meaning of
singular indefinites more generally; the latter, for example, posits that
children have difficulty restricting the domain of indefinites to a singleton
set when the discourse context provides multiple salient individuals that
could plausibly be members of the domain. Given these predictions, van der
Ziel presents a series of experiments showing first that the Reverse-pattern
is not restricted to a particular indefinite, but rather is observed with a
variety of singular indefinites (e.g., ‘some’, numeral ‘one’ or ‘één’ in
Dutch) and second, that children are able to interpret indefinites in a
target-like way when the sentences in question do not contain universal
quantification. In light of these findings, van der Ziel proposes that the
source of the Reverse-pattern lies not with the indefinite, but rather the
universal quantifier.

Given evidence that the Reverse-pattern is not driven by a deficiency in the
interpretation of the indefinite, Chapter 4 explores an alternative lexical
explanation: that the problem lies instead in children’s interpretation of
universal quantification. Van der Ziel formulates the Distributivity
Hypothesis (building on aspects of Drozd and van Loosbroek (2006)). According
to this hypothesis, 5-year-olds know that universal quantifiers like ‘every’
are obligatorily distributive, but reject sentences in contexts that do not
unambiguously support a distributive interpretation. Consider (3) again. In an
unambiguously distributive ALL>ONE context, where there is a one-to-one
correspondence between hedgehogs and pieces of cake, children have no problem
verifying that the property of being given to a hedgehog holds for each
individual piece of cake; if unconstrained by the FSC, they will accept the
sentence in such contexts. In a ONE>ALL context however, where there is no
one-to-one correspondence between hedgehogs and pieces of cake, children have
difficulty verifying whether every piece of cake is given to a hedgehog, and
so reject the sentence, giving rise to the Reverse-pattern. Thus the problem
lies in a mismatch between the perceived (lack of) distributivity in the
context and the obligatory distributivity of the universal quantifier. The
experiments presented in Chapter 4 reveal that the Reverse-pattern surfaces
with sentences containing obligatorily distributive universal quantifiers such
as ‘ieder’ (every), but not cardinal quantifiers or non-obligatorily
distributive universal quantifiers such as the collective ‘alle’ (all),
providing preliminary evidence for the Distributivity Hypothesis. Children
have acquired the distributivity feature as part of the lexical feature
specification of distributive universal quantifiers, but have difficulty
evaluating whether the context unambiguously satisfies this distributivity

Given the restriction of the Reverse-pattern to test sentences containing
distributive universal quantifiers, Chapter 5 further explores the role of
distributivity, i.e. the requirement that whatever applies to a larger set
also applies to each individual element of the set. While Tunstall’s (1998)
Event-Distributivity Condition states that sentences containing an ‘every’-NP
can only be true of event structures that are at least partially distributive,
van der Ziel presents results from a picture selection task showing that
adults tend to prefer fully distributive event structures over partially
distributive ones. Thus she hypothesizes that the lexical meaning of a
distributive universal quantifier encodes a requirement for fully distributive
or prototypically distributive event structures, and moreover that adults but
not children can accommodate deviations from this basic interpretation:

(4) The Weak Prototypical Distributivity Hypothesis: Distributive universal
quantifiers force a prototypically distributive event structure, i.e. an event
structure in which every element in the restrictor set of the universal
quantifier is associated with a distinct subevent. However, adults can deviate
from this prototypical interpretation, whereas children cannot. (p. 148)

(5) The Strong Prototypical Distributivity Hypothesis: Distributive universal
quantifiers force a prototypically distributive event structure, i.e. an event
structure in which every element in the restrictor set of the universal
quantifier is associated with a distinct subevent. In addition, these
subevents need to be unique. However, adults can deviate from this
prototypical interpretation, whereas children cannot. (p. 149)

Although the results of a truth value judgment task do not fully support
either hypothesis as an explanation for children’s performance, van der Ziel
observes crucially that all contexts in which children accepted the test
sentences involved a full (though not necessarily one-to-one) linking of the
set of possible recipients and a set of objects, a property dubbed ‘Full Set
Linking.’ This property was not attested in any of the contexts which lead
children to reject the test sentences.

Chapter 6 presents van der Ziel’s overarching account of the Reverse-pattern,
driven by the crucial observation of Full Set Linking: all contexts which
yielded acceptances (but no contexts which yielded rejections) were ones where
the set of recipients and the set of objects were exhaustively linked (though
not necessarily in a one-to-one correspondence). The question arises as to why
Full Set Linking comes into play only when children are evaluating sentences
containing distributive universal quantifiers. Van der Ziel assumes that both
children and adults adhere to a weak version of Prototypical Distributivity,
wherein each element in the restrictor set of the distributive universal needs
to be associated with a distinct subevent. Both groups also use a short-cut
strategy to verify prototypical distributivity: they evaluate the end state.
When this shortcut fails, adults can revise their strategy and subsequently
verify whether each element in the restrictor set is associated with a
distinct event. Children on the other hand continue to evaluate the end state,
and thus induce the requirement for Full Set Linking. Moreover, unlike
children, adults can accommodate situations that deviate from prototypical
distributivity; for example, when a reading is blocked by the FSC, adults can
reject the sentences even if prototypical distributivity holds. This takes us
full circle back to the question of whether children have knowledge of the
FSC. Given the persistence of the Reverse-pattern errors through the age of 5
years, van der Ziel endorses the information structure account of the FSC,
suggesting that children have not yet acquired the link between the indirect
object position and its topic status. Adults strongly adhere to the FSC
because they strongly associate the indirect object with topicality (and thus
wide scope). Children who have not acquired the obligatory topic status of
indirect objects are unconstrained by the FSC, and adhere to the Full Set
Linking requirement, thereby yielding the Reverse-pattern.

This volume presents a very detailed, well thought-out investigation into what
appears to be a very challenging set of data. It grapples with a performance
pattern that appears to involve layers of complexity, touching on facets of
syntax (i.e. movement and scope), semantics (i.e. interpretation strategies),
information structure (e.g., topicality), and processing (i.e. the ability to
revise one’s interpretation strategy), and ultimately motivates a similarly
multi-layered account.

The investigation is well situated within the context of previous studies on
English, Chinese, and Dutch (Su & Crain, 2000; Su, 2001; Philip, 2005;
Hendriks, Koops van’t Jagt, and Hoeks, 2012; Philip & Coopmans, 1995), and the
introductory chapters clearly set the stage for an analysis of the unusual
pattern of results dubbed the Reverse-pattern. Presenting her own experimental
evidence for the existence of the Reverse-pattern, van der Ziel systematically
works through a number of possible hypotheses regarding the source of the
Reverse-pattern, deftly leading the reader through the predictions of these
hypotheses, and the carefully designed experiments that put these predictions
to the test. Building on the information gathered in each subsequent
experiment, van der Ziel arrives at a plausible, multi-layered explanation for
the Reverse-pattern, notably one which succeeds in incorporating the multiple
different factors that seem to be at play.

One factor that makes the larger puzzle (but also the task of working through
the sometimes dense and complex experimental findings) all the more
challenging is the overall non-uniformity of the data. The dissertation is
predicated on a single pattern of behaviour that itself only surfaces at a
rate of about 38-52%. Given the variability in the data, it is very useful to
see the individual results, and van der Ziel very helpfully provides
classifications that group the children based on their patterns of responses
(target-like, Reverse-pattern, ambiguity, unclear, etc.). It is not entirely
clear what to make of the sometimes relatively large number of children who
fall into the ‘mixed/unclear’ category (in Experiment II, for example).
Children who fail to be classified according to any of the expected response
patterns present a curiosity, as they must have nevertheless passed all
control items sufficiently, in order to be included in the data analysis.

The volume should also generate some lively discussion, as it leaves open some
very interesting questions. I lay out a few of them here. One question
concerns the sets of non-target-like adults who were tested across the various
experiments. The 10 adult controls in Experiment I (Chapter 2) for example,
performed at 70-80% accuracy. Two of the ten adults displayed the
Reverse-pattern and one showed mixed behaviour. What is one to make of this
data? Van der Ziel notes (footnote 59) that her use of the term ‘targetlike
performance’ is not to be equated with ‘adultlike performance’, as the adults
she tests do not always perform according to the predictions of the linguistic
theory. The difficulty of this underscores the challenging nature of the
problem to be solved. Given the subset of adults who consistently do not
conform to the experimental predictions, a compelling linguistic theory must
be able to account not only for the child data, but also for these adults’
performance. The question then arises whether van der Ziel’s overarching
account can capture the non-target-like adult data. Presumably these adults
were on task if they passed the control trials sufficiently to be included in
the data analysis, and presumably they were consistent enough in their
responses in order to be classified into a category of response pattern. The
natural explanation, if one adopts van der Ziel’s final account, is that these
adults stuck to their initial verification strategy (checking for prototypical
distributivity) -- and for any number of reasons (fatigue, lack of attention),
did not end up revising their interpretation strategy. In this context, an
interesting consideration is what would happen if we were to increase the
processing load of the experimental condition; if the reason that children
cannot revise the interpretation strategy is due to the processing costs of
revision for example, we might expect to see adults turn into children under
heavy load conditions.

Another question that might be investigated in future research is whether we
can shift participants’ biases for different verification strategies. Figure 1
on page 32 provides the illustration accompanying the test sentence ‘Snow
White gave a lady every flower’. It’s worth noting that none of the three
ladies that appear in the image is more salient than the other two. If
children did have difficulty restricting the domain of an indefinite to a
singleton individual unless that individual was very salient, we might expect
the domain for the indefinite ‘a lady’ to include all three ladies; in this
case, the child might then be biased towards a (prototypically distributive)
verification strategy that checks for each lady whether she was involved in a
giving event. So while it may be that children appear to require a kind of
exhaustive pairing, perhaps other factors drive this apparent need; for
example, non-saliency of the individuals in the possible domain might bias
towards a distributive verification strategy. Another possibility for future
research involves testing the Full Set Linking requirement experimentally,
that is, monitoring participants’ verification strategies by tracking their
eye movements as the stimuli are presented. Given the two matching sets (of
recipients and objects), what are the participants attending to? Given van der
Ziel's proposal, we might expect children to attend to whether the two sets
are matched up; adults on the other hand might initially check the two sets,
only to revise and specifically attend to the individuals in the restrictor
set of the universal.

Yet another question pertains to the developmental story. What has to mature
in order for the children to behave in a target-like way? Interestingly, van
der Ziel notes that no effects of age were found across the 4-, 5-, and
6-year-olds. The lack of an age effect is especially interesting, if what has
to mature are the mechanisms for verification, and the processes involved in
revising initial interpretations (cf. Conroy et al. (2009) for a study that
finds a U-shaped developmental trajectory in children’s scope interpretations;
these authors suggest that children go through an intermediate stage where
they have acquired adult-like parsing preferences but are not adept at
revising their interpretations).

Finally, consider the implications of interactions among the relevant factors
that van der Ziel raises in her goal of deriving the Reverse-pattern. Van der
Ziel’s discussion takes us through the many layers of the problem at hand:
syntax/information structure, distributivity/lexical requirements,
interpretation strategies, and revision abilities. She ultimately concludes
that the Reverse-pattern finds its source in the combination of two factors:
(i) the Reverse-pattern children have not acquired the FSC; and (ii) these
children continue to use the short-cut strategy for evaluating quantifier
interpretation. In light of the multiple relevant factors however, it’s
interesting to consider whether possible interactions among these different
factors can predict the other response patterns, namely the Ambiguity pattern
(yes-responses in both ONE>ALL and ALL>ONE contexts) and the target-like
pattern (yes-responses in the ONE>ALL contexts and no-responses in the ALL>ONE
contexts). It seems to me that there are at least three forces in tension with
each other, having to do with the different ingredients (raised throughout the
book) that the child must acquire before she can be fully target-like: the FSC
(information-structural in nature), the distributivity requirement (lexical in
nature), and revision abilities (involving processes that generate and select
among possible interpretations). In van der Ziel’s story, the distributivity
requirement is lexically obligatory but violable, while the FSC is generally
less violable (or in terms of constraint ranking, appears to rank higher than
the distributivity requirement for adults). Finally, it appears that
children’s revision abilities require time to develop to an adult-like
capacity. Assuming these three factors, we seem to be able to predict exactly
those three response patterns observed by van der Ziel: (1) target-like
children include any children who have acquired the FSC, whether they have
acquired the distributivity requirement or adult-like revision abilities; the
FSC, being less violable than distributivity, will always lead to a
yes-response in the ONE>ALL context and a no-response in the ALL>ONE context.
(2) Reverse-pattern children include children who have not acquired the FSC or
adult-like revision abilities, but have acquired the distributivity
requirement; unconstrained by the FSC and without the ability to revise
interpretation strategies, they will always check for prototypical
distributivity and respond accordingly. Finally, the children who fall into
the “Ambiguity” category include children who have not acquired the FSC, but
have acquired the distributivity requirement and adult-like revision
abilities; they are unconstrained by the FSC and prefer prototypical
distributivity, but can deviate like adults. The remaining two logically
possible groups are: (i) children who have not acquired the FSC or the
distributivity requirement, but have adult-like revision abilities, and (ii)
children who have not acquired the FSC, the distributivity requirement, or
adult-like revision abilities. The predictions for these last two groups are
unclear. In short however, it seems that some interaction of the factors
raised by van der Ziel can successfully capture the observed response

Overall, I found van der Ziel’s argumentation to be compelling and well
supported by her experimental findings. This volume is clearly organized and
presents a strong narrative. The research questions are well motivated, the
hypotheses are well thought out, and the experiments are well-designed to test
the hypotheses. The book should primarily be of interest to linguists and
psychologists interested in child language acquisition, particularly of
syntax/semantics, scope, quantification, and information structure. In
addition, the data (particularly the adult data) presented should be
informative for theoretical linguists interested in theories of
quantification, distributivity, and event structure. Finally, the dissertation
contains an array of eight carefully designed experiments; clear descriptions
of all the methodologies are provided, and appendices include the full
experimental stimuli, allowing for easy reconstruction of the designs. The
extensive experimental component makes it a useful methodological guide to the
strategies and issues that are relevant for researchers conducting
experimental investigations on scope ambiguity, as well as researchers
conducting child language studies more generally.

Bruening, B. 2001. QR obeys superiority: Frozen scope and ACD. Linguistic
Inquiry 32.2:233-273.

Conroy, A., J. Lidz, and J. Musolino. 2009. The fleeting isomorphism effect.
Language Acquisition 16:106-117.

Drozd, K.F. and E. van Loosbroek. 2006. The effect of context on children’s
interpretations of universally quantified sentences. In V. van Geenhoven, ed.,
Semantics Meets Acquisition. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 115-140.

Goldberg, A.E. 2006. Constructions at Work: The Nature of Generalization in
Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hendriks, P., R. Koops van ‘t Jagt and J. Hoeks. 2012. Restricting quantifier
scope in Dutch: Evidence from child language comprehension and production. In
B. Stolterfoht and S. Featherston, eds., Empirical Approaches to Linguistic
Theory: Studies of Meaning and Structure. Studies in Generative Grammar.
Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 147-167.

Krämer, I. 2000. Interpreting indefinites: An experimental study of children’s
language comprehension. Doctoral dissertation, Utrecht University.

Philip, W.C.H. 2005. Pragmatic control of specificity and scope: Evidence from
Dutch L1A. In E. Maier, C. Bary, and J. Huitink, eds., Proceedings of SUB9.
Nijmegen: NCS, 271-285.

Philip, W.C.H. and P.H.A. Coopmans. 1995. Symmetrical interpretation and scope
ambiguity in the acquisition of the universal quantification in Dutch and
English. In J. Don, B. Schouten, and W. Zonneveld, eds., OTS Yearbook 1994,

Schwarzschild, R. 2002. Singleton indefinites. Journal of Semantics

Su, Y.-C. 2001. Scope and specificity in child language: A cross-linguistic
study on English and Chinese. Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland.

Su, Y.-C. and S. Crain. 2000. Children’s scope taking in double-object
constructions. CLS 36: the Panels, 485-498.

Tunstall, S. 1998. The interpretation of quantifiers: Semantics and
processing. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Lyn Tieu is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the
University of Connecticut. As of January 2014, she will join the LINGUAE
(CNRS) group in Paris as a post-doctoral researcher. Her research interests
involve child language acquisition and the development of linguistic phenomena
that lie at the syntax-semantics-pragmatics interface. Her dissertation
focuses in particular on the acquisition of the negative polarity item ‘any’,
investigating children's sensitivity to NPI licensing conditions, as well as
their knowledge of domain widening and exhaustification of alternatives. She
is also more generally interested in formal semantics, experimental
syntax/semantics/pragmatics, theoretical syntax, and bilingual first language

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