Seeing vs. Seeing That: Children's Understanding of Direct Perception and Inference Reports

E. Emory Davis, Barbara Landau


Young children can reason about direct and indirect visual information, but fully mapping this understanding to linguistic forms encoding the two knowledge sources appears to come later in development. In English, perception verbs with small clause complements ('I saw something happen') report direct perception of an event, while perception verbs with sentential complements ('I saw that something happened') can report inferences about an event. In two experiments, we ask when 4-9-year-old English-speaking children have linked the conceptual distinction between direct perception and inference to different complements expressing this distinction. We find that, unlike older children or adults, 4-6-year-olds do not recognize that see with a sentential complement can report visually-based inference, even when syntactic and contextual cues make inference interpretations highly salient. These results suggest a prolonged developmental trajectory for learning how the syntax of perception verbs like see maps to their semantics.


language acquisition; perception verbs; inference; semantics; syntax; complements

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Copyright (c) 2021 E. Emory Davis, Barbara Landau

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