Previous research in pragmatic development suggests that children as old as ten often fail to make pragmatic inferences associated with quantifiers like some and modal verbs like might; instead they initially interpret these forms in terms of their logical meanings (i.e. some is compatible with all) (Chierchia et al., 2001; Noveck, 2001). This dissertation examines children's acquisition of pragmatic inferences associated with the definite and indefinite articles the and a (Gundel et al., 1993). In a series of three experiments, pragmatic comprehension of these forms is assessed in children and adults through two tasks: an evaluation-based comprehension task similar to tasks used by previous researchers (Puppet Task) as well as an action-based task (Action Task).
The results of Experiment 1 indicate that, contrary to previous research with other scalar terms, by age 7 children overwhelmingly prefer the pragmatic interpretation of a. Experiment 1 also revealed that some 5-year-olds show non-adult-like behavior with respect to the definite article the--selecting a not-previously-mentioned object upon hearing the and accepting the puppet's actions when he did the same. Experiment 2 tests, and ultimately rejects, the hypothesis that the 5-year-olds' behavior in response to the in the previous experiment was due to processing difficulties as the result of their having a distributed attention. Experiment 3 attempts to arbitrate between two other explanations for the 5-year-olds' behavior in response to the; young children are either 1) less sensitive than adults and older children to the Relevance-based pragmatic inferences sometimes associated with the or 2) prone to favor new objects (in the Action Task) and agreeing with the puppet (in the Puppet Task) as opposed to attending to the linguistic input in each trial. The results of the Action Task in Experiment 3 lend support to the latter hypothesis; the results of the Puppet Task, however, support the former, suggesting that the Puppet Task was problematic and potentially calling into question some findings from previous research using evaluation-based tasks as a means of evaluating comprehension.