Children's Two Word Combinations

Vivian Cook

One of the first discoveries about children's language was that when they start putting words together they seem to use rules all of their own. Here are some of the two-word combinations produced by a boy called Andrew between 19 and 23 months. Can you see any rules to this?

all broke

more car

airplane by

all buttoned

more fish

siren by

all clean

more high


all done

more hot

no bed

all dressed

more read

no down

all fix

more sing

no fix

all messy

more walk

no pee

all through


no wet

all shut

see baby


all wet

see pretty

mail come

all gone

see train

mama come

The explanation that Martin Braine came up with was that Andrew had two types of words in his speech. One type could occur freely on its own, like walk, called an open word. The other could not occur on its own but had to be accompanied by an open word, more, called a pivot word. The child always combines these two types together; some pivots occur first no down, some second, airplane by. The result may be something that an adult would never say but that is perfectly logical in the child's own terms: no wet, more high, see pretty, siren by.

Of course not all of the children's sentences fit these rules. Here are some other sentences from Andrew that go outside his own rules.

airplane all gone

what's that

pants change

all done milk

mail man

dry pants

byebye back

our car

up on there some more

papa byebye

our door

off bib

While this pivot grammar works quite well, later researchers have turned to more complicated analyses, partly to capture how the child uses the sentence rather than just its word combination; more car for example might be a request to hand over another model car, more hot a request to turn the heating up.

Source: Braine, 1963

How do children learn words?  Children's Early Words   Words in the UK National Curriculum    BabyTalk words


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