Acquisition of infinitival complements: the case for semantic or syntactic development, or both


  • John Ryan University of Northern Colorado


This article revisits the topic of the acquisition of infinitival complements in children, considering the extent to which longitudinal data for one child in the CHILDES corpus supports one, the other or both of the following two frameworks, namely: 1) the lexical/semantic approach which suggests among other things that verbs taking infinitival complements are acquired in a semantically meaningful order, that is: a) modality, b) manipulative, and c) cognition utterance verbs; and/or 2) the maturational syntactic interpretation which suggests that children at first have no functional syntactic levels such as either a tense phrase (TP) or complementizer phrase (CP) in their language. The data show support for the first framework in the sense that verbs taking infinitival complements appear to enter the informant’s productive speech in a predictable semantic order, and that there was also a certain order to the appearance of infinitive types as related to verb type. It also appears that structure expands to accommodate separate subjects for the complement taking verb and the complement infinitive. In terms of the second framework, syntax appears to trail behind semantics with the idea that the TP is not initially present but begins to emerge while the child amasses verbs and forms. This seems reasonable in that at this stage the child would be sorting out the very nature of the TP level, processing simultaneously the different possible items such as tense, infinitival to, auxiliaries, modals such as can, could and will, and the progressive copula be, all of which have been shown to occupy the head of the TP. The paper shows that analysis of the early behavior of these other elements must be taken into account in addition to that of infinitival ‘to’ in order to provide a more complete picture of the development of the TP in the broader sense, and that a focus solely on the nature or behavior of infinitival ‘to’ without looking at these other forms would fall short in capturing what may be truly happening at the level of the TP. As has also been demonstrated in this paper, knowing that there are other forms that “compete” with the space typically occupied by infinitival to, it would make sense that initially, Sarah would alternate between correct production of infinitival to and omitting it, while she is trying to figure out the many purposes of the head of the TP.



How to Cite

Ryan, J. (2022). Acquisition of infinitival complements: the case for semantic or syntactic development, or both. Journal of Child Language Acquisition and Development-JCLAD, 429–450. Retrieved from