The acquisition of indefinite pronouns in English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Abstract

2. Something general on indefinite pronouns

3. Data and method

4. Results
4.1 A comparison of the subjects
4.2 Frequencies of indefinite pronouns
4.3 The acquisition of compound indefinite pronouns after indefinite of-pronouns
4.4 The acquisition of compound indefinite pronouns ending in -one and-body

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Abstract

This term paper deals with the acquisition of English indefinite pronouns in First Language Learning. The centre of attention of my study will be the two major groups of indefinite pronouns that exist in English, specifically the compound indefinite pronouns and the indefinite of-pronouns which will be discussed in more detail in point 2 of this work.

My first thesis to prove is that children acquire compound indefinite pronouns later than of-pronouns. Due to the fact that children generally acquire simple forms earlier than complex ones, one can say that the first indefinite pronouns that children acquire are indefinite of-pronouns for the reason that they are much easier than complex indefinite pronouns because they consist of one morpheme only. My second thesis to examine refers to an observation by Quirk et al. (1992: 378). They say that in Standard American and British English, compound indefinite pronouns ending in - one, are generally more frequently used in adult speech because they are more elegant. According to Quirk’s finding, I assume that indefinite pronouns ending in - one will be learned earlier than those ending in - body. Therefore, I will check this thesis with the help of data selected from the CHILDES database.

2. Something general on indefinite pronouns

Just like any other part of speech, pronouns are an important constituent of our language. According to Gallmann and Sitta (cf. 2001: 58) who are experts on German grammar, pronouns can generally be defined as companions and representatives of a noun. Many pronouns function as both, companions and representatives at the same time whereas some pronouns are restricted to one of these roles only. As companions of a noun, pronouns give information on the definiteness, quantity and membership of a noun and indicate whether the noun it goes along with is known. When a pronouns functions as a representative of a noun, it refers to nouns which are know or not specified in more detail. There are various types of pronouns. Consequently, it is a little problematic is to classify pronouns. Some researchers are of the opinion that each type is a part of speech on its own. Gallmann and Sitta (cf. 2001: 59 ff.), on the other hand, think that such a classification is not very favourable for the reason that pronouns account for a minor part of our vocabulary although they are used quite frequently. Thus, they point out ten subtypes of pronouns according to their syntactic function: (1) personal pronouns, (2) possessive pronouns, (3) reflexive pronouns, (4) demonstrative pronouns, (5) interrogative pronouns, (6) relative pronouns, (7) definite article, (8) indefinite pronouns, (9) definite quantifiers and finally (10) indefinite pronouns which are the topic of my study. Due to the fact that this is a classification for German pronouns, not all of these subtypes are valid for the English language, because English definite and indefinite articles do not have case or gender. Indefinite pronouns in particular express something which is not specified. In most cases it is an indefinite quantity (2001: 67).

Quirk et al. (1992: 376) say that indefinite pronouns are different from other pronouns for the reason that they lack the element of definiteness and do not define the replaced noun or noun phrase in more detail. They are quantifiers in a logical sense: they have universal or partitive meaning. According to their morphology and their syntactic behaviour, indefinite pronouns can be divided into two main classes: the compound pronouns and the of-pronouns. The compound pronouns, on the one hand, are composed of two morphemes: a determiner morpheme like every-, some-, any - and a nominal morpheme like -one, -body, -thing. Furthermore, compound pronouns can be subdivided into four groups according to their reference and meaning: (1) universal, (2) assertive, (3) non-assertive and (4) negative. In addition, compound pronouns can be freely postmodified by restrictive noun phrases, prepositional phrases and relative clauses. It is also possible to add adjectival modification after the pronouns whereas a premodification by adjectives is not possible. For the most part, compound pronouns behave like noun phrases and are all singular and therefore require a singular verb (1992: 378). Besides, the exception that no one is spelled apart, all compound indefinite pronouns are formed regularly. The pairs of pronouns with personal reference, for instance anyone and anybody are equal in meaning and function. However, the authors state that compounds ending in -one sound more cultivated and elegant than the one ending in -body (1992: 376 ff.). Consequently, compound pronouns ending in - one are more frequent in adult speech than those ending in - body (1992: 378).

Of-pronouns, on the other hand, are followed by a partitive of-phrase (some of, many of …). Furthermore, they can be used as substitute for noun phrases or other nominal constructions and they are all identical in form to the corresponding determiner (1992: 379). However, the of-phrase can be omitted when referring to people in general. Here, it is possible to elucidate the meaning by adding people. Quirk (1992: 380) gives a famous quotation from Shakespeare’s work Twelfth Night to demonstrate that use: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

3. Data and method

The entire data for this study are collected from the Child Language Data Exchange System CHILDES which is the largest electronic database for child language. The data used for this study was recorded by Roger Brown who was professor of Psychology and Social Relations at Harvard University in former times. This study includes selected data from the children Adam and Eve. Each file of these two children includes a different number of words uttered by the child and by some other people communicating with him/her. Because of the high number of total words, it was necessary to transfer the total number of counted pronouns into the number of relative counts. For each file, I divided the number of total counts by the number of words. Afterwards, I multiplied the result with 1000 to get a number that big enough to be represented in a graph. Here is an example: Adam uses the indefinite pronoun something 7 times in file number 27. Consequently, I divide 7 by the number of total words in file 27 (= 4115) and multiply the result (= 0,0017) with 1000 to get a relative count of 1,70. The number of words in each file was extracted with the following command: freq adam01.cha +t*chi.

Table 1 on the next page shows all indefinite pronouns, I looked at.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1

For my first thesis that children acquire compound indefinite pronouns later than indefinite of-pronouns, I searched the entire corpora of Adam and Eve. I looked for files where the children use a certain pronoun for the first time with the following command: combo adam*.cha +sanything* +t*chi +t%mor +d2, whereas +s was changed for every single pronoun. However, there are some indefinite of-pronouns that are difficult to distinguish from adjectives. That is the reason why I added the morphological tier t%mor to the search string. While looking at the different files, I did not only pay attention to the indefinite pronouns (pro:indef), I also took a look at the quantifying nouns (qn). Some of the of-pronouns, like few or some, for example, are listed in the CHILDES as quantifying noun only.

For my second thesis which says that indefinite compound pronouns ending in -one are learned earlier than indefinite compound pronouns ending in -body, I made use of the following command to extract appropriate data from the CHILDES database: combo adam01.cha +spro:indef* +t*chi +t%mor +d2. For each file, I counted every single compound indefinite pronoun ending in -one and -body. After that, I calculated the relative number of utterances. In order to draw conclusions and have data to compare my findings with, I also analyzed the indefinite pronouns used by Eve. In the end, I transferred the data into graphs with the intention to make my findings more understandable and illustrative.

4. Results

4.1 A comparison of the subjects

With my first two graphs, I want to demonstrate the difference between Adam and Eve concerning the use of indefinite pronouns in general. Here, it is important to mention that the Eve-corpus recorded a speech development of nine month only whereas the Adam-corpus provides data of nearly three years. Another interesting fact is that Eve’s recording was stopped at the same age when the recoding of Adam’s data began, namely at the age of two years and three months. As a consequence, one can also speculate what happens at a quite early stage of language production.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Graph 1 and 2 illustrate the percentage of Adam’s and Eve’s use of indefinite pronouns at each stage of his and her speech recording. As we can see, the percentage of indefinite pronouns accounts for not more than 1,8 % of the number of total words in each file. In my opinion, this is a surprisingly low percentage. When we consider that children do not know as many words as adults, one can assume that they will make more use of indefinite expressions, for example when they get know to a new referent. That means that the child wants to refer to things s/he can not name, because s/he has never seen this referent before or heard and used this particular word for the referent in former times.

Another interesting observation that can be made with the help of the two graphs, is, that Eve’s use of indefinite pronouns at a quite early age of one year and seven months is as high (or even a little higher) as Adam’s use of indefinite pronouns at the age of three years and at the end of his recordings with five years and two months. However, this seems to be an exception or a coincidence, because this high percentage does only occur once in Eve’s graph. Besides, one has to bear in mind that the use of indefinite pronouns always depends on the input and the stimuli the child receives and, of course, it always depends on the child him- or herself.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


The acquisition of indefinite pronouns in English
College  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Abteilung Sprache und Kognition)
Syntactic Development
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ISBN (eBook)
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Diese Hausarbeit ist mehr oder weniger eine Studie, basierend auf einer Korpus-Analyse des Programms CHILDES.
English, Syntactic, Development
Quote paper
Stefanie Warnke (Author), 2008, The acquisition of indefinite pronouns in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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