Grammatical Development

One word stage / Holophrastic stage

The average child is about a year old when it speaks its first words. Roughly between 12 and 18 months is begins to speak in single word utterances such as ‘milk’ mummy’ and so on. This is known as the ONE WORD STAGE. Occasionally more than one work may appear to be involved but this is because the child has learned the group of words as a single unit and thinks it is all one word. For example: ‘Allgone’.

In many situations the words simply serve a naming function, however, sometimes they convey more complex messages. These words are called HOLOPHRASES. For example, the word ‘juice’ might mean ‘I’ve finished my juice’ or ‘I want more juice’, therefore the single word is taking the place of a more complex grammatical construction that the child hasn’t learned yet.

Two word stage

Two word sentences usually appear when the child is around 18 months old. Usually, the two words are in a grammatically correct sequence such as:

  • Subject + verb  - Jenny sleep (Jenny is sleeping)
  • Verb + object Suzy juice (Suzy is drinking juices)
  • Subject + complement Daddy busy (daddy is busy)

Also, when a child tries to repeat what an adult has said, it will miss out part of the sentence, but what is retained is usually grammatically correct:

ADULT:         Look Charlie, Ben’s playing in the garden

CHILD:          Play garden

This example shows how children in this stage focus on key words. Words that convey less information such as ‘in’ or ‘the’ for example, are missed out.

Confusion as to what a child actually means during the two-word stage can arise because children don’t know tenses or plurals yet. Also, depending on the CONTEXT of the utterance it might have more than one meaning. Take the following example from Bloom (1973):




Mummy sock

Child picks up sock

This is mummy’s sock

Mummy sock

Mother puts sock on child

Mummy’s putting my sock on

The Telegraphic Stage

From the age of about 2, children begin producing three and four word utterances. Some will be grammatically complete such as ‘Amy likes tea’ or ‘Mummy sleeps upstairs’ but others will have essential grammatical elements missing such as ‘Daddy home now’ or ‘Laura broke plate’. These utterances are similar to some of those used in the two-word stage – they can often make sense, but key elements are missing such as:

  • Articles – ‘a’ ‘the’
  • Auxiliary verbs – ‘is’ ‘has’
  • Prepositions- ‘to’ ‘on’ ‘for’
  • Conjunctions – ‘but’ ‘because’

Progress during this stage is rapid, and by the age of 5, children have usually mastered sentences containing more than one clause, conjunctions and ‘ing’ ‘ed’ or ‘s’ endings to words and verbs. These are known as inflectional affixes.

Acquistion of Inflections

Research indicates there is a predictable pattern in the acquisition of inflectional affixes. These are word endings such as –ed and –ing. Functional words such as articles like ‘a’ and ‘the’ and also auxiliary verbs seem to be acquired in a regular order.

Brown (1973) studied children’s language development between the ages of 20 months and 36 months and found the sequence shown below occurred regularly. The features are also listed in the order in which they were acquired:

1)    –ing

2)    plural ‘-s’

3)    possessive ‘-s’

4)    the, a

5)    past tense –ed

6)    third person singular verb ending – s (eg): he sings

7)    auxiliary verb ‘be’  (eg): I am dancing

Cruttenden (1979) divided the acquisition of inflections into the following three stages:

1)    In the first stage, children memorise words on an individual basis

2)    In the second stage they show an awareness of the general rules of inflections. They observe that past tense forms usually end in –ed so instead of ‘ran’ they say ‘runned’. This kind of error is known as Overgeneralisation.

3)    In the third stage, correct inflections are used

Understanding Grammatical Rules

Children produce accurate grammatical constructions from an early age, and researchers have tried to determine if they have learned this themselves or have copied adult speech. A famous experiment was carried out by Jean Berko (1958) who showed children pictures of fictitious creatures he called ‘Wugs’.  At first, the child was shown a picture of one creature and told ‘this is a Wug’. Then, they were shown a picture of two Wugs, and the children were asked to complete the sentence ‘Now there are two…’. Children aged 3 and 4 replied ‘Wugs’. As they could never have heard this word before, it because clear that they were applying the rule that plural end in ‘-s’/ However, children between the ages of 2 and a half and 5 often OVERGENERALISE’ with plurals, so we hear things like ’sheeps’ and mouses’.

Asking Questions

Research suggests this happens in three stages:

1)    Relying on intonation in the two-word stage eg: daddy home? Said with a rising tone

2)    During their second year children acquire question words such as ‘what’ and ‘where’ resulting in questions such as ‘where daddy gone?’ They can’t yet use auxiliary verbs such as ‘has’

3)    In their third year, children can use auxiliary verbs and learn to say ‘is Joe here?’ however, they can’t always use wh-words correctly yet and might say things like ‘why Joe isn’t here?’


This also happens in three stages:

1)    Words ‘no’ and ‘not’ are used in front of other expressions eg) no want

2)    During the third year ‘don’t’ and ‘can’t are used eg) I don’t want it

3)    In the third stage more negative forms are acquired such as ‘didn’t’ and ‘isn’t’ and negative constructions are used more accurately.

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