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The acquisition of sequence of tense

Bartjan Hollebrandse, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This thesis explores the acquisition of dependent tenses. More specifically, it focuses on Sequence of Tense. This refers to the ability in some languages to report on an utterance with a direct speech in which a present tense is used (“I am happy”) with an indirect speech report in which a past tense is used (“John said he was happy”). Complementation plays crucial role in making the embedded tense depended on the matrix one. Therefore, the child first has to acquire complementation, i.e., the link between a main clause and a complement. If the child hasn't acquired complementation yet, he or she will not have independent tenses in this case. This thesis shows this hypothesis experimentally for three languages: English, Dutch and Japanese. The findings are that there is a stage, up to 4 years in which the child allows more readings, than adults. He or she can have “future” oriented readings, such as forward shifted readings as long as they occur before the utterance time of the sentence. They are explained by the child's lack of knowledge of complementation. Moreover, the linguistic phenomenon of Sequence of Tense is compared with a cognitive phenomenon, the development of a Theory of Mind. This phenomenon refers to the ability of expressing someone else's beliefs or thoughts without committing oneself to that belief or thought. A form of complementation is crucial in both phenomena. This thesis argues that complementation is acquired through the understanding of the difference in point of view between direct and indirect speech is what the child has to acquire. For instance, first person pronouns refer to the speaker of a sentence in indirect speech, but to the main clause subject in direct speech. Finally, this thesis extends the idea of the importance of point of view differences to the domain of wh-extraction in direct speech.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Hollebrandse, Bartjan, "The acquisition of sequence of tense" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9978507.