Skip to main content Accessibility help

Children's understanding of adverbs denoting degree of likelihood*

  • Cynthia Hoffner (a1), Joanne Cantor (a2) and Diane M. Badzinski (a3)


Two studies were conducted to examine children's understanding of three terms that denote different degrees of likelihood: possibly, probably and definitely. In Study 1, children in preschool, and first, third and fourth grade completed a comparison task involving pairs of likelihood terms. Twelve stories were created that described the likelihood that each of two children would participate in an activity, and subjects judged which of the two children actually participated. In Study 2, children in preschool, and first, third and fifth grade evaluated separate statements describing three different children, each of whom was said to have a different estimate of the likelihood that a scary event depicted in a movie would actually occur. Subjects rated how scared each of the three children felt. The results of the two studies revealed that preschoolers showed very little comprehension of the meaning of any of the three words, but by fourth grade the majority of children distinguished among all three terms. Children understood the distinction between definitely and both of the other terms (possibly, probably) better than they understood the distinction between possibly and probably. This finding is consistent with research on the development of children's understanding of probability concepts. Unexpectedly, the distinction between probably and definitely seems to emerge at a younger age than the distinction between possibly and definitely. The findings are discussed in terms of their implications for communicating verbal messages to children.


Corresponding author

Department of Communication, Illinois State University, Stevenson Hall, Normal, IL 61761, USA.


Hide All

The authors would like to thank Robert M. Ogles for recording and editing the audiotapes used in Study i, and Quana Jew for reading the stories. The authors also acknowledge their appreciation to the Madison Metropolitan School District, and the staff and students of the participating schools: Orchard Ridge Elementary School and University Avenue Day Care, both in Madison, Wisconsin.



Hide All
Beyth-Marom, R. (1982). How probable is probable? A numerical translation of verbal probability expressions. Journal of Forecasting 1. 257–69.
Budescu, D. V. & Wallsten, T. S. (1985). Consistency in interpretation of probabilistic phrases. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 36. 391405.
Cantor, J. (in press). Fright responses to mass media productions. In Bryant, J. & Zillmann, D. (eds), Responding to the screen: reception and reaction processes. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
Cantor, J. & Hoffner, C. (1987). Children's fear reactions to a televised film as a function of perceived immediacy of depicted threat. Paper presented at the meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Baltimore, April.
Clark, H. H. & Clark, E. V. (1977). Psychology and language: an introduction to psycholinguistics. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Coates, J. (1988). The acquisition of the meanings of modality in children aged eight and twelve. Journal of Child Language 15. 425–34.
Cohen, J. & Hansel, C. E. M. (1956). Risk and gambling. London: Longman.
Dorr, A. (1983). No shortcuts to judging reality. In Bryant, J. & Anderson, D. R. (eds), Children's understanding of television. New York: Academic Press.
Fischbein, E. (1975). The intuitive sources of probabilistic thinking in children. Boston: Reidel.
Friedman, M. I. & Willis, M. R. (1981). Human nature and predictability. Lexington MA: Lexington Books.
Heath, L. (1984). Impact of newspaper crime reports on fear of crime: multimethodological investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 47. 263–76.
Inhelder, B. (1977). The development of the concepts of chance and probability in children. In Overton, W. F. & McCarthy, J. (eds), Knowledge and development: advances in research and theory. Vol. 1. New York: Plenum.
Jones, L. V. & Wepman, J. M. (1966). A spoken word count. Chicago: Language Research Associates.
Kuczaj, S. A. (1975). On the acquisition of a semantic system. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 14. 340–58.
Kuczaj, S. A. (1982). Acquisition of word meaning in the context of the development of the semantic system. In Brainerd, C. J. & Pressley, M. (eds), Verbal processes in children: progress in cognitive development research. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Lichtenstein, S. & Newman, J. R. (1967). Empirical scaling of common verbal phrases associated with numerical probabilities. Psychonomic Science 9. 563–4.
Lyons, J. (1977). Semantics. Vol. 1. New York: C.U.P.
Marascuilo, L. A. & Levin, J. R. (1983). Multivariate statistics in the social sciences. Monterey CA: Brooks/Cole.
Morison, P., Kelly, H. & Gardner, H. (1981). Reasoning about the realities on television: a developmental study. Journal of Broadcasting 25. 229–41.
Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1975). The origin of the idea of chance in children. New York: Norton.
Reyna, V. F. (1981). The language of possibility and probability: effects of negation on meaning. Memory and Cognition 9. 642–50.
Rogers, R. W. (1983). Cognitive and physiological processes in fear appeals and attitude change: a revised theory of protection motivation. In Cacioppo, J. & Petty, R. (eds), Social psychophysiology. New York: Guilford Press.
Scholz, R. W. & Waller, M. (1983). Conceptual and theoretical issues in developmental research on the acquisition of the probability concept. In Scholz, R. W. (ed.), Decision making under uncertainty. New York: North-Holland.
Scott, C. M. (1984). Adverbial connectivity in conversations of children 6 to 12. Journal of Child Language 11. 423–52.
Snow, C. E. (1986). Conversations with children. In Fletcher, P. & Garman, M. (eds), Language acquisition, New York: C.U.P.
Sparks, G. G. & Cantor, J. (1986). Developmental differences in fright responses to a television program depicting a character transformation. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 30. 309–23.
Stephany, U. (1986). Modality. In Fletcher, P. & Garman, M. (eds), Language acquisition. New York: C.U.P.
Thorndike, E. L. & Lorge, I. (1944). The teacher's word book of 30,000 words. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Townsend, D. J. (1974). Children's comprehension of comparative forms. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 18. 293303.
Vlek, C. & Stallen, P. J. (1980). Rational and personal aspects of risk. Acta Psychologica 45. 273300.
Wallsten, T. S., Budescu, D. V., Rapoport, A., Zwick, R. & Forsyth, B. (1986). Measuring the vague meanings of probability terms. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 115. 348–65.
Wallsten, T. S., Fillenbaum, S. & Cox, J. A. (1986). Base rate effects on the interpretations of probability and frequency expressions. Journal of Memory and Language 25. 571–87.
Zimmer, A. C. (1984). A model for the interpretation of verbal predictions. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 20. 121–34.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Children's understanding of adverbs denoting degree of likelihood*

  • Cynthia Hoffner (a1), Joanne Cantor (a2) and Diane M. Badzinski (a3)


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.