Skip to main content Accessibility help

Syntactic complexity in the comprehension of wh-questions and relative clauses in typical language development and autism



This study investigates effects of syntactic complexity operationalized in terms of movement, intervention, and noun phrase (NP) feature similarity in the development of Aʹ-dependencies in 4-, 6-, and 8-year-old typically developing (TD) French children and children with autism spectrum disorder. Children completed an offline comprehension task testing eight syntactic structures classified in four levels of complexity: Level 0: no movement; Level 1: movement without (configurational) intervention; Level 2: movement with intervention from an element that is maximally different or featurally “disjoint” (mismatched in both lexical NP restriction and number); and Level 3: movement with intervention from an element similar in one feature or featurally “intersecting” (matched in lexical NP restriction, mismatched in number). The results show that syntactic complexity affects TD children across the three age groups, but also indicate developmental differences between these groups. Movement affected all three groups in a similar way, but intervention effects in intersection cases were stronger in younger than in older children, with NP feature similarity affecting only 4-year-olds. Complexity effects created by the similarity in lexical restriction of an intervener thus appear to be overcome early in development, arguably thanks to other differences of this intervener (which was mismatched in number). Children with autism spectrum disorder performed less well than the TD children although they were matched on nonverbal reasoning. Overall, syntactic complexity affected their performance in a similar way as in their TD controls, but their performance correlated with nonverbal abilities rather than age, suggesting that their grammatical development does not follow the smooth relation to age that is found in TD children.


Corresponding author

ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Stephanie Durrleman, Department of Linguistics, University of Geneva, 40 Boulevard du Pont d’Arve, Geneva 1211, Switzerland. E-mail:


Hide All
Adani, F. (2011). Rethinking the acquisition of RCs in Italian: Towards a grammatically based account. Journal of Child Language, 38, 141165.
Adani, F., van der Lely, H. K. J., Forgiarini, M., & Guasti, M. T. (2010). Grammatical feature dissimilarities make RCs easier: A comprehension study with Italian children. Lingua, 120, 21482166.
Association, American Psychiatric. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Arosio, F., Guasti, M.-T., & Stucchi, N. (2010). Disambiguating information and memory resources in children's processing of Italian relative clauses. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 40, 137154.
Arosio, F., Yatushiro, K., Forgiarini, M., & Guasti, M. T. (2012). Morphological information and memory resources in children's processing of relative clauses in German. Language Learning and Development, 8, 340364.
Baunaz, L. (2011). The grammar of French quantification. Dordrecht: Springer.
Belletti, A., Friedmann, N., Brunato, D., & Rizzi, L. (2012). Does gender make a difference? Comparing the effect of gender on children's comprehension of relative clauses in Hebrew and Italian. Lingua, 122, 10531069.
Bentea, A., Durrleman, S., & Rizzi, L. (2016). Refining intervention: The acquisition of featural relations in object A-bar dependencies. Lingua, 169, 2141.
Berman, R. (1997). Early acquisition of syntax and discourse in Hebrew. In Shimron, Y. (Ed.), Psycholinguistic studies in Israel: Language acquisition, reading and writing [in Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
Bianchi, V. (2006). On the syntax of personal arguments. Lingua, 116, 20232067.
Cheng, L. L.-S., & Rooryck, J. (2000). Licensing WH-in-situ. Syntax, 3, 119.
Chomsky, N. (2000). Minimalist inquiries. In Martin, R., Michaels, D., & Uriagereka, J. (Eds.), Step by step. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (2001). Derivation by phase. In Kenstowicz, M. (Ed.), Ken Hale: A life in language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Contemori, C., & Belletti, A. (2013). Relatives and passive object relatives in Italian speaking children and adults: Intervention in production and comprehension. Applied Psycholinguistics, 36, 10211053.
Contemori, C., & Marinis, T. (2013). The impact of number mismatch and passives on the real-time processing of relative clauses. Journal of Child Language, 17, 132.
Cook, V. J. (1975). Strategies in the comprehension of relative clauses. Language and Speech, 18, 204212.
Costa, J., Lobo, M., & Silva, C. (2011). Subject–object asymmetries in the acquisition of Portuguese relative clauses: Adults vs. children. Lingua, 121, 10831100.
Delage, H., Monjauze, C., Hamann, C., & Tuller, L. (2008). Relative clauses in atypical acquisition of French. In Gavarró, A. & Freitas, M. J. (Eds.), Language acquisition and development: Proceedings of GALA 2007 (pp. 166176). Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars.
Ford, M. (1983). A method for obtaining measures of local parsing complexity throughout sentences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22, 203218.
Franck, J., Colonna, S., & Rizzi, L. (2015). Task-dependency and structure-dependency in number interference effects in sentence comprehension. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 349
Frauenfelder, U., Segui, J., & Mehler, J. (1980). Monitoring around the relative clause. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 328337.
Friedmann, N., Belletti, A., & Rizzi, L. (2009). Relativized relatives: Types of intervention in the acquisition of A'-dependencies. Lingua, 119, 6788.
Friedmann, N., & Novogrodsky, R. (2004). The acquisition of RC comprehension in Hebrew: A study of SLI and normal development. Journal of Child Language, 31, 661681.
Friedman, N., Yachini, M., & Szterman, R. (2015). Relatively easy relatives: Children with syntactic SLI avoid intervention. In Hamann, C., Di Domenico, E., & Matteini, S. (Eds.), Structures, strategies and beyond: Studies in Honour of Adriana Belletti. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Guasti, M.-T., & Cardinaletti, A. (2003). Relative clause formation in Romance child's production. Probus, 15, 4789.
Guasti, M. T., & Shlonsky, U. (1995). The acquisition of French relative clauses reconsidered. Language Acquisition, 4, 257276.
Hakes, B., Evans, J., & Brannon, L. (1976). Understanding sentences with relative clauses. Memory and Cognition, 4, 283296.
Hamann, C. (2006). Speculations about early syntax: The production of wh-questions by normally developing French children and French children with SLI. Catalan Journal of Linguistics, 5, 143189.
Hamann, L., Tuller, L., Monjauze, C., & Delage, H. (2007). (Un)successful subordination in French-speaking children and adolescents with SLI. In Caunt-Nulton, H., Kulatilake, S., & Woo, I. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 31st annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (Vol. 1, pp. 286297). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Huang, C.-T. J. (1982). Logical relations in Chinese and the theory of grammar. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hulk, A. (1996). The syntax of Wh-questions in child French. Amsterdam Series in Child Language Development, 5, 129172.
Hulk, A., & Zuckerman, S. (2000). The interaction between input and economy: Acquiring optionality in French Wh-questions. In Howell, S. C., Fish, S. A., & Keith-Lucas, T. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 24th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 438449). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Jakubowicz, C. (2004). Question formation in French SLI: Is movement costly? Paper presented at Groningen Workshop on the L1 Acquisition of Tense, Aspect, and Questions, June 11, University of Groningen.
Jakubowicz, C. (2005). The language faculty: (Ab)normal development and interface constraints. Paper presented at GALA 2005.
Jakubowicz, C. (2011). Measuring derivational complexity: New evidence from typically developing and SLI learners of L1-French. Lingua, 121, 339351.
Johnson, V. E., de Villiers, J., & Seymour, H. (2005). Agreement without understanding? The case of third person singular –s. First Language, 25, 317330.
Labelle, M. (1990). Predication, Wh-movement, and the development of relative clauses. Language Acquisition, 1, 95119.
Labelle, M. (1996). The acquisition of relative clauses: Movement or no movement? Language Acquisition, 5, 6582.
Lord, C., & Paul, R. (1997). Language and communication in autism. In Cohen, D. J. & Volkmar, P. R. (Eds.), Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders (pp. 195225). New York: Wiley.
Mathieu, E. (1999). WH in situ and the intervention effect. In Iten, C. & Neeleman, A. (Eds.), UCL Working Papers in Linguistics (pp. 441472). London: University College.
McDaniel, D., McKee, C., & Bernstein, J. B. (1998). How children's relatives solve a problem for minimalism. Language, 74, 308334.
Miller, K., & Schmitt, C. (2009). Variable vs. consistent input: Comprehension of plural morphology and verbal agreement in children. In Brucart, J. M., Gavarro, A., & Sola, J (Eds.), Merging features: Computation, interpretation and acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Perez-Leroux, A. T. (2005). Number problems in children. In Gurski, C. (Ed.), Proceedings of the 2005 Canadian Linguistics Association Annual Conference. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Perovic, A., Modyanova, N., Hanson, E., Nelson, C., & Wexler, K. (2007). Investigations of language in autism: Evidence for a grammatical deficiency. Poster presented at Autism Research, Open University.
Perovic, A., Modyanova, N., & Wexler, K. (2013). Comprehension of reflexive and personal pronouns in children with autism: A syntactic or pragmatic deficit? Applied Psycholinguistics, 34, 813835.
Plunkett, B. (1999). Targeting complex structure in French questions. In Greenhill, A., Littlefield, H., & Tano, C. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 764775). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Raven, J. C., Court, J., & Raven, J. (1986). Raven’s Coloured Matrices. London: H. K. Lewis.
Reinhart, T. (1997). Quantifier scope: How labor is divided between QR and choice functions. Linguistics and Philosophy, 20, 335397.
Riches, N. G., Loucas, T., Baird, G., Charman, T., & Simonoff, E. (2010). Sentence repetition in adolescents with specific language impairments and autism: An investigation of complex syntax. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 45, 4760.
Rizzi, L. (1990). Relativized minimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rizzi, L. (2004). Locality and the left periphery. In Belletti, A. (Ed.), Structure and beyond (pp. 223251). New York: Oxford University Press.
Rizzi, L. (2013). Locality. Lingua, 130, 169186.
Roth, P. F. (1984). Accelerating language learning in young children. Journal of Child Language, 11, 89107.
Sheldon, A. (1974). The role of parallel function in the acquisition of relative clauses in English. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 272281.
Shlonsky, U. (2012). Notes on wh in situ in French. In Bruge, L., Cardinaletti, A., Giusti, G., Munaro, N., & Poletto, C. (Eds.), Functional heads: The cartography of syntactic structures (Vol. 7, pp. 242252). New York: Oxford University Press.
Starke, M. (2001). Move dissolves into merge: A theory of locality. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Geneva.
Strik, N. (2008). Syntaxe et acquisition des phrases interrogatives en français et en néerlandais: une étude contrastive. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Université Paris 8.
Tager-Flusberg, H. (2004). Strategies for conducting research on language in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 7580.
Tager-Flusberg, H., Calkins, S., Nolin, T., Baumberger, T., Anderson, M., & Chadwick-Dias, A. (1990). A longitudinal study of language acquisition in autistic and Down syndrome children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20, 121.
Terzi, A., Marinis, T., Kotsopoulou, A., & Francis, K., (2014). Grammatical abilities of Greek-speaking children with autism. Language Acquisition, 21, 444.
Tuller, L., Henry, C., Sizaret, E., & Barthez, M.-A. (2012). SLI at adolescence: Avoiding complexity. Applied Psycholinguistics, 33, 161184
van Kampen, J. (1997). First steps in wh-movement. Delft: Eburon.
Villata, S., Rizzi, L., & Franck, J. (in press). Intervention effects and relativized minimality: New experimental evidence from graded judgments. Lingua.
Zebib, R., Tuller, L., Prévost, P., & Morin, E. (2013). Formal language impairment in French-speaking children with ASD: A comparative ASD/SLI study. Advances in Language Acquisition series. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publisher.
Zuckerman, S. (2001). The acquisition of “optional” movement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Groningen.

Syntactic complexity in the comprehension of wh-questions and relative clauses in typical language development and autism



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.