Three-year-olds' comprehension of contrastive and descriptive adjectives: Evidence for contrastive inference

Catherine Davies, Jamie Lingwood, Bissera Ivanova, Sudha Arunachalam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Combining information from adjectives with the nouns they modify is essential for comprehension. Previous research suggests that preschoolers do not always integrate adjectives and nouns, and may instead over-rely on noun information when processing referring expressions (Fernald, Thorpe, & Marchman, 2010; Thorpe, Baumgartner, & Fernald, 2006). This disjointed processing has implications for pragmatics, apparently preventing under-fives from making contrastive inferences (Huang & Snedeker, 2013). Using a novel experimental design that allows preschoolers time to demonstrate their abilities in adjective-noun integration and in contrastive inference, two visual world experiments investigate how English-speaking three-year-olds (N = 73, Mage = 44 months) process size adjectives across syntactic (prenominal; postnominal) and pragmatic (descriptive; contrastive) contexts. We show that preschoolers are able to integrate adjectives and nouns to resolve reference accurately by the end of the referring expression, in a variety of pragmatic and syntactic contexts and in the presence of multiple distractors. We reveal for the first time that they can contrastively infer, given a slowed speed of presentation and visually salient size contrasts. Our findings provide evidence for a continuity in the development of pragmatic skills, which do not appear to be linked to children's language proficiency or speed of processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104707
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Adjectives
  • Contrastive inference
  • Developmental pragmatics
  • Eye tracking
  • Language development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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