Generic interpretations of possessive recursion in English-speaking children


  • Tyler Poisson UMass Amherst Language Acquisition Lab
  • Jill de Villiers Smith College
  • Hirsto Kyuchukov University of Silesia
  • Bea Weinand Smith College
  • Lillian Young Smith College
  • Sofia Morales Smith College
  • Laisha Aniceto Smith College



possessive, recursion, generic, syntax-semantics, A-over-A Principle


Two-part s-possessives such as the dad’s kid’s bike admit at least two distinct interpretations: the dad has a kid who has a bike, or the dad has a bike that is made for kids. We propose that the former interpretation derives from recursively embedding DP-possessives, and the latter from representing kid’s bike as a generic NP-possessive. Accordingly, in the right context, two-part s-possessives are fully ambiguous for adults between ‘recursive’ and ‘generic’ readings. These readings can be disambiguated syntactically. Consider the difference in meaning when we insert a relative clause and extract the constituent kid’s bike the kid’s bike that is the dad’s — versus when we extract the head noun bike — the bike that is the dad’s kid’s. Our story-based experiment demonstrates that 4-7-year-olds (N=79) and adults (N=68) strongly favor (~80%) the generic interpretation of phrases like the kid’s bike that is the dad’s, as the A-over-A constraint blocks the extraction of a DP-possessive out of a recursive DP. Similarly, adults show a strong preference (~80%) for recursive interpretations of phrases like the bike that is the dad’s kid’s, as the A-over-A constraint blocks the extraction of the head noun bike out of the generic NP-possessive kid’s bike. However, 4-5-year-olds admit generic readings of these recursive phrases 54% of the time; it is not until 6 or 7 years that children show an adult-like preference for the recursive interpretation (~80%). These data support two complementary claims. First, that recursive possessives are acquired late on account of their syntax, and second that children, like adults, represent generic possessives under a different syntactic node than regular possessives.




How to Cite

Poisson, Tyler, Jill de Villiers, Hirsto Kyuchukov, Bea Weinand, Lillian Young, Sofia Morales, and Laisha Aniceto. 2023. “Generic Interpretations of Possessive Recursion in English-Speaking Children”. Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America 8 (1): 5496.