Child language, theory of mind, and the role of procedural markers in identifying referents of nominal expressions

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The absence of a simple one-to-one mapping between linguistic form and a speaker's intended interpretation is perhaps most evident in the case of referring expressions. This is true for pronouns (e.g., she, that), which encode little if any conceptual content, as well as for full nominal expressions such as the papers in this volume, the woman in the red dress, all of which can refer to different entities in different contexts of use. This chapter examines the use of referring expressions in spontaneous conversation by children aged 3 and younger, with specific focus on determiners/pronouns which constrain possible interpretations by encoding procedural information about how the referent is to be mentally accessed (i.e., whether it is in focus, activated, familiar, uniquely identifiable, referential, or type identifiable). I argue that the procedural nature of the meaning of these forms explains why children are able to use them appropriately before they exhibit the representational ability to correctly assess the mental states of others that is measured by standard theory of mind tests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationProcedural Meaning
Subtitle of host publicationProblems and Perspectives
EditorsManuel Leonetti, Aoife Ahern, Victoria Escandell-Vidal
PublisherBrill Rodopi
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9780857240934
StatePublished - 2011

Publication series

NameCurrent Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface
ISSN (Print)1472-7870

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2011 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited. All rights reserved.


  • Child language
  • Cognitive status
  • Givenness Hierarchy
  • Theory of mind


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