The use of grammatical morphemes reflecting aspect and modality by children with specific language impairment

Laurence B. Leonard, Patricia Deevy, Carol A. Miller, Monique Charest, Robert Kurtz, Leila Rauf

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38 Scopus citations


Children with specific language impairment (SLI) have well-documented problems in the use of tense-related grammatical morphemes. However, in English, tense often overlaps with aspect and modality. In this study, 15 children with SLI (mean age 5; 2) and two groups of 15 typically developing children (mean ages 3; 6 and 5; 3) were compared in terms of their use of previously studied morphemes in contexts that more clearly assessed the role of aspect. The children's use of less frequently studied morphemes tied to modality or tense was also examined. The children with SLI were found to use -ing to mark progressive aspect in past as well as present contexts, even though they were relatively poor in using the tense morphemes (auxiliary was, were) that should accompany the progressive inflection. These children were inconsistent in their use of third person singular -s to describe habitual actions that were not occurring during the time of their utterance. However, the pattern of the children's use suggested that the source of the problem was the formal tense feature of the inflection, not the habitual action context. The children's use of modal can was comparable to that of the typically developing children, raising the possibility that the modality function of possibility had been learned without necessarily acquiring the tense feature of this morpheme. These children's proficiency with can suggests that their bare verb stem productions should probably not be re-interpreted as cases of missing modals. Together these findings suggest that the more serious tense-related problems seen in English-speaking children with SLI co-occur with a less impaired ability to express temporal relations through aspect and modality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)769-795
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of child language
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • General Psychology


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