Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Katherine Nelson

Committee Members

Joseph Glick

Patricia Brooks

Subject Categories

Developmental Psychology


An apparent discrepancy in the literature on mental verbs between findings of experimental studies (young children fail to contrast terms) and observational studies (children use terms correctly in conversation) can be reconciled using Nelson and Lucariello's (1985) theory of word meaning development. According to their analysis, three aspects of word meaning develop in order: reference, denotation, and sense. For success at experimental tasks, children must have attained a system of interrelated word meanings (sense). However, children's initial uses of think and know take their meanings from the roles in the language games in which they occur (Wittgenstein, 1953).

In this study, 12 two-year-old and 11 three-year-old children were observed at four one-hour sessions over six months in their homes with their mothers. The ways in which think and know were used by both the mothers and children were described. The mothers differentiated their uses of think and know by person reference, time reference, lexical frames, and conversational function. The children differentiated the two verbs by conversational function. In addition, the two-year-old children first used think and know in different language game roles.

Each child used think or know in a conversationally embedded manner at a visit before (or at the same visit as) they used denotation, supporting Nelson and Lucariello's model of word meaning development. The three-year-olds used denotation more than the two-year-olds, while only one three-year-old demonstrated any sense meanings.

Mother-child conversational processes that may support word meaning development were identified. For the two-year-olds' initial embedded uses, these included repetition, use tied to a particular event, role reversal, use of wh-questions, and the mother's contrast of related mental verbs. For the three-year-olds, acquisition of more advanced forms of use may be supported by the mothers' encouragement of discussions of the past, future, and general, suggestions of presuppositions of mental verbs, contrast of related mental verbs, use of relevant time vocabulary, logical statements and purpose explanations.


Digital reproduction from the UMI microform.