Children’s Production of Referring Expressions: Effects of Age and Visual Complexity on Under- and Over-Descriptions


The Maxim of Quantity states that a speaker should provide enough information for an object to be identified but no more (Grice, 1975). However, research has shown that children tend to produce too little information (under-description) and adults tend to provide too much information (over-description). In this study, we examined the production of referring expressions across the course of development (i.e. 7–18 years). Participants were required to generate a referring expression, and we manipulated the presence or absence of a contrasting object and display complexity. Results showed an age effect on the production of under-descriptions: Young children produced significantly more under-descriptions in more complex arrays compared to older children. In addition, an analysis of voice onset times and eye movements investigated whether there are speed-accuracy tradeoffs associated with visual search and the tendency to include extra information. Conclusions focus on the development of reference mechanisms from childhood to adulthood.

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