On the universality of the subject preference in the acquisition of relative clauses across languages

Nozomi TANAKA*, Elaine LAU, Alan L. F. LEE

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Subject relative clauses (RCs) have been shown to be acquired earlier, comprehended more accurately, and produced more easily than object RCs by children. While this subject preference is often claimed to be a universal tendency, it has largely been investigated piecemeal and with low-powered experiments. To address these issues, this meta-analysis follows an established and rigorous scientific method to test the generalizability of the subject preference in RC acquisition by evaluating the collective evidence. While the results show a significant crosslinguistic subject preference, there is a large amount of heterogeneity in the data. The manifestation of this subject preference may not be uniform across languages, depending on typological properties such as language headedness, RC headedness, and main clause similarity. The true impact of these features, however, requires research on more typologically diverse languages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-243
Number of pages25
JournalFirst Language
Issue number3
Early online date30 Jan 2024
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024

Bibliographical note

We thank Alina Matthews, Kent Meinert, Jacob Owens, Jacob Schmitt, and Daniel Swanson for their help with coding, Laurie Durand for her editorial support, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions on the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2024.


  • Relative clause
  • acquisition
  • comprehension
  • meta-analysis
  • subject–object asymmetry


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