Children’s inferences based on figure and ground thematic roles

Eleanor ChestnutStanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Ellen MarkmanStanford University


Logically symmetrical predicates are frequently interpreted, by adults, asymmetrically. Adults prefer to say, for example, “My brother met the President,” over, “The President met my brother.” This is because directional syntax contains figure and ground thematic roles, requiring the more important or prominent item be placed in the ground (second) position. To date, little is known about the development of this asymmetric interpretation. To address this, in Experiments 1 and 2 we asked whether children prefer to relate figures to grounds when expressing spatial relations (e.g., “The bicycle is next to the building”) and similarity (e.g., “A zebra is like a horse”). Children as young as 4 showed emergent preference for this framing. In Experiment 3, we asked whether children ages 4 to 8 infer grounds to have higher skill and status in more specific comparisons (e.g., “The blicket cooks as well as the toma”). We also asked whether including the modal can (e.g., “The blicket can play soccer like the toma”) or the comparative as well as (e.g., “The blicket plays soccer as well as the toma”) would strengthen this inference. Children ages four through eight tended to associate grounds with higher status and skill in comparisons containing the modal can, but only the older children seemed affected by the comparative as well as. This work has implications for attempts to counter stereotypes: saying that girls do science as well as boys, for example, may imply that boys set the standard.


Children’s inferences based on figure and ground thematic roles (257 KB)

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