Two-Year-Olds Use the Generic/Nongeneric Distinction to Guide Their Inferences About Novel Kinds


  • This research was supported by an operating grant from NSERC of Canada and funding from the Canada Research Chairs Program and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, both awarded to Graham. Nayer was supported by graduate fellowships from SSHRC of Canada and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. Gelman’s contribution was supported by NICHD Grants R01HD36043 and R56HD036043 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development or the National Institutes of Health. We thank the parents and children who participated in the studies. We also thank Natasha Nickel, Hayli Stock, Kristin Rostad, Danielle Droucker, and Melanie Khu for their assistance with this research. Some of the data from these experiments were included in S. Nayer’s PhD thesis, submitted to the University of Calgary.

concerning this article should be addressed to Susan A. Graham, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary, 2500 University Dr. NW, Calgary, AB, Canada T2N 1N4. Electronic mail may be sent to


These studies investigated two hundred and forty-four 24- and 30-month-olds’ sensitivity to generic versus nongeneric language when acquiring knowledge about novel kinds. Toddlers were administered an inductive inference task, during which they heard a generic noun phrase (e.g., “Blicks drink milk”) or a nongeneric noun phrase (e.g., “This blick drinks milk”) paired with an action (e.g., drinking) modeled on an object. They were then provided with the model and a nonmodel exemplar and asked to imitate the action. After hearing nongeneric phrases, 30-month-olds, but not 24-month-olds, imitated more often with the model than with the nonmodel exemplar. In contrast, after hearing generic phrases, 30-month-olds imitated equally often with both exemplars. These results suggest that 30-month-olds use the generic/nongeneric distinction to guide their inferences about novel kinds.