When kids first begin talking, typically at around 12 months of age, they of course stick to the basics— very short phrases that convey basic wants, needs, and social routines. Mama. More. Up. Hi! All-done. Milk. Doggy. Bye-bye. Oops! These are mostly one-word phrases and are not pronounced perfectly. Then, typically when children are between 1 ½ and 2 years old, they take an important step in language learning: making word combinations. More milk. Mama car. Up Daddy. No doggy. The intended meaning of early phrases might not be very clear out of context (Mama car could mean “look, there’s mommy’s car” or “here mommy, take my toy car”), but a child at this stage of language development shows us that he is beginning to understand that words are units of meaning that can be combined in novel ways to creating novel meanings, as in Mama car. Big car. Car up. Once we know a good number of words and understand our language’s grammar, we can combine words to generate phrases that explain anything we want. That is, language is generative. The possibilities are literally endless.
Sometime around 2 years old, children usually begin using grammatical morphemes, or the little parts of words that make our phrases grammatically complete, and can express nuances like tense and number. One of the earliest in English is the present progressive -ing, as in crying, eating, going. Regular plurals (cups) and regular past tense (climbed) are also acquired pretty early on. As children learn new grammatical forms, they are not just memorizing whole words. Rather, they are learning the grammatical rules of whatever language (or languages) they are acquiring. They learn how we can take these little word parts and apply them to other words we know, to create new shades of meaning. For example, boat means something different than boats; walking means something different than walked.
The morphemes for plural and past tense are a little more complicated than they may appear at first glance. There are actually three different pronunciations for each of these grammatical markers, depending on the sound at the end of the root word.
|Root word ends in:||Plural “-s” morpheme sounds like:|
|/p, t, k, f, th (voiceless)/||/s/ as in cups, hats, snacks, cliffs, baths|
|/b, d, g, m, n, ng, v, th (voiced), l, r/|
and any vowel sound
|/z/ as in tubs, beds, bags, drums, hens, songs, doves, lathes, balls, cars, cows, bees, pies|
|/s, z, sh, ch, j/||/ez/ as in buses, sizes, bushes, watches, badges|
|Root word ends in:||Past tense “-ed” morpheme sounds like:|
|/p, k, f, th (voiceless), s, sh, ch/||/t/ as in hopped, walked, coughed, birthed, flossed, washed, watched|
|/b, g, m, n, ng, v, th (voiced), z, j/|
and any vowel sound
|/d/ as in rubbed, hugged, hummed, banned, arrived, bathed, buzzed, waged, bowed, peed, tied|
|/t, d/||/ed/ as in batted, glided|
These context-dependent variations on morphemes are called allomorphs. So using the above examples, /s, z, ez/ are allomorphs of the regular plural morpheme -s, and /t, d, ed/ are allomorphs of the regular past tense morpheme -ed. Despite the different sounds, children are typically able to learn and apply grammar rules just by talking with adults around them, without even being aware that these variations exist. Our knowledge of spoken grammar is mostly subconscious: you don’t even know that you know it. In fact, I would wager that most adults who have not studied linguistics or early literacy instruction are not aware of allomorphs, and also probably can’t easily explain other grammar basics, such as when exactly we use he versus him and that the suffix -ly is used to change an adjective to an adverb.
So how do we know that little kids are actually applying their knowledge of grammatical rules, rather than just learning new grammatical words as whole units, parroting words they have heard mom or dad say? After all, most 2-year-olds won’t say, “Today I learned that I have to put a sss, zzz, or ez at the end of the word to indicate that there is more than one thing.” How do we know that they know that?
For starters, children will begin to apply a rule more and more consistently, using it across multiple contexts, which suggests that the rule is acquired. Furthermore, we hear evidence of grammar knowledge in the errors and inventions that are so common in the speech of young children. When children make errors such as mouses instead of mice, they have not likely heard an adult say the word mouses, meaning they just came up with it on their own. This is an example of overgeneralization of a grammatical morpheme- using it where it doesn’t actually belong. While it’s technically not correct to say mouses, it’s a normal stage of language development and shows that the child can generate words using the plural marker.
I recently polled an online parenting forum for examples of such inventions of words. The post generated a lot of interest, and responses were both adorable and brilliant. Let’s take a look at some, and see what they tell us about those children’s understanding of spoken grammar.
Quite a few kids demonstrated understanding of present progressing -ing. As mentioned, it is one of the earlier emerging grammatical morphemes, and so there’s a lot of opportunity for kids to get creative. There was a girl who said someone doing yoga in the park was namasteing. A boy was wapping things with his wapping stick. Another child used puzzling to mean playing with puzzles. In the autumn, the leaves are fall-downing. You go grossing at the grocery store. A truck is back-upping. And finally, I AM carefulling!!
There was a child who stuck two allomorphs at the end of words to mark plurals: carses, cookieses, toeses. (Moses supposes his toeses are roses?) Another child mistook the word much for a noun, and showed her ability to use the plural /ez/ allomorph: so many muches.
One child said at bedtime Can you cush and coze me? meaning that she wanted her mom to make her cushy and cozy. This represents an understanding of the suffix -y in adjectives. She knows that -y often means having the quality of the root word (which could be either nouns as in sandy or verbs as in runny), and so invented root word verbs cush and coze.
This next one is particularly genius, in a couple of ways. A child apparently said that when the family car got new tires, it was retired. This shows an understanding of the prefix re-, meaning to do something again (to again put tires on a car). Then, adding -ed in this case changes the word from a noun to an adjective, called a participial adjective (as in I am bored). Also, we know that retired is a word that actually does exist, although it means something completely different. Likely this child heard that word at one point, and used his smarts about morphology to infer a possible meaning. Genius!
Here’s a neat one: a child used willn’t instead of won’t, apparently having analyzed all the other n’t contractions and determining that they should closely resemble the words from which they are derived (as in do-don’t, can-can’t, should-shouldn’t). So of course the opposite of will is willn’t. I’d like to see how many grown-ups have thought of that. Not me, to be honest, and I think about a lot of stuff like this. Thanks, kiddo, for pointing me towards this explanation.
Another little girl apparently used peace-ify in the place of pacify, I’m guessing in the context of talking about a baby’s pacifier bringing about a moment of peace. That parent basically has a mini etymologist on her hands, because this kid probably already knows that both peace and pacify come from the Latin word pax, and the suffix -ify changes a word to a verb that means to become the root word.
Similar to the cush and coze example, this one involves the child removing a part of a word. Hammers are what you use the ham things. The -er suffix changes a word from an action to a thing that does the action. Workers work. Players play. Hammers ham. Of course!
I want so badly for this next one to be correct: the child who thought that the opposite of nocturnal was turnal. It’s brilliant, because a) the kid already knows the word nocturnal b) it still shows awareness that words can break into parts, and c) noc sounds like not, so it’s a pretty reasonable guess! Alas, in this case, noct comes from the Latin nox for night. (The opposite of nocturnal is diurnal, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard in my life.)
Threeth. Not a word, but the kid who said it gets that the suffix -th is used to express the ordinal numbers such as fourth, twentieth, and billionth (but not first, second, third).
Some kids were able to show understanding of morphemes for negation: dis-, un-, and de-. One wanted to be disbored (bored of being bored?), another who wanted his friend to be unsick so they could play, and another who said he would never delove his mother (I’m not crying, you’re crying!!).
These next ones involve little phrases. English has many two-word verbs, such as shut down, figure out, fit in, that are often idiomatic phrases (and notoriously difficult for English second-language speakers). A few parents shared examples that demonstrate that the child knows that grammatically there is such thing as a two-word verb, but hasn’t quite gotten it right: pick me down, buckle me out, and tuck me up (ok, that last one is my own son).
Next, some examples from bilingual or multilingual households, where kids sometimes mix vocabulary and grammar from more than one language in the same phrase. For example, a little girl who said lumes to mean that something lit up. This is a sweet mash-up of French luminer and English -s third person singular. She also used unlâche to tell someone let go of something. This shows that she likely knows the un- English morpheme for negation, but lâche in French already means let go.
Another bilingual child was mad because her brother retruired her castle. The child combined re-, détruir (destroy), and the English past tense -ed. Seems like someone wrecked that castle a few times over.
And finally, because no story about preschoolers in complete without reference to poop and/or boogers: microttes. This one is a portmanteau, or a word coined by blending two words, such as breakfast + lunch = brunch. A child from a trilingual French-Spanish-English house apparently regularly invented her own words and one day came up with microttes as a combination of microbes (germs) and crottes (boogers/little poops). Great! And gross, so let’s go wash our hands, shall we?
Are you curious about the age at which children typically acquire grammatical morphemes? Although we have a pretty clear picture of the sequence of development of early grammar, the age of acquisition varies a lot from child to child. This chart can give a general idea, though a word of caution: age estimates are based on observations of a rather small number of children.
|Grammatical morpheme||Examples||Common age of acquisition|
|Present progressive ing|
Prepositions on, in
On the table. In the car.
|Irregular past tense|
|It fell. |
Is it here? It is!
|Articles a, the|
Regular past tense
3rd person singular -s
|A flower. The car.|
I licked my ice cream.
He likes pizza.
|3rd person of have, do|
Forms of the verb be
|He has a dog. She does yoga.|
He is climbing. I’m not sliding, but she is. Are you hungry?
This post has been about children’s development of spoken grammar. Some children need extra help with this, but, as previously mentioned, children learn spoken language mostly by simply talking with others. Little kids don’t need to worry about understanding how grammar works in spoken language, because they unconsciously learn the rules. However, we know that learning written language is not the same process. In order to efficiently acquire literacy skills, school-aged children benefit from explicit teaching of many aspects grammar. For example, many young children will write stopped as stopt and hugged as hugd. When we teach kids that the letters ed at the end of a word represent the regular past tense, we are teaching morphological awareness. This helps developing readers decode, understand, and spell complex words such as impossible, cooperation, mismanagement, unfathomable. But morphological awareness is a huge topic for another day. Willn’t you stay tuned??