Overgeneralization Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In linguistics, overgeneralization is the application of a grammatical rule in cases where it doesn't apply.

The term overgeneralization is most often used in connection with language acquisition by children. For example, a young child may say "foots" instead of "feet," overgeneralizing the morphological rule for making plural nouns.

Examples and Observations

  • "'If I knowed the last bug I eated would be the last bug I eated, I woulda eated it slower,' Phil said sadly."
    (Cathy East Dubowski, Rugrats Go Wild. Simon Spotlight, 2003)
  • "I'm not scared of Dan, Mama, he was nice to me. He gived me drinks of water, and covered me up with his coat. and when he goed away, he said a prayer at me."
    (Anne Hassett, The Sojourn. Trafford, 2009)
  • "Most of you have probably heard a child say a word that you would never say. For example, children acquiring English routinely produce verbs like bringed and goed or nouns like mouses and foots, and they certainly haven't learned these forms from the adults around them. So they aren't imitating adult speech, but they are figuring out grammatical rules, in this case the way to form past tense verbs and plural nouns. This process of figuring out a grammatical rule and applying it generally is called overgeneralization. They will later modify their natural rules of past tense and plural formation to accommodate the exceptions, including brought, went, mice, and feet. And moreover, they'll modify their language only when they're good and ready."
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2010)

Three Phases of Overgeneralization

"[C]hildren overgeneralize in the early phases of acquisition, meaning that they apply the regular rules of grammar to irregular nouns and verbs. Overgeneralization leads to forms which we sometimes hear in the speech of young children such as goed, eated, foots, and fishes. This process is often described as consisting of three phases:

Phase 1: The child uses the correct past tense of go, for instance, but does not relate this past-tense went to present-tense go. Rather, went is treated as a separate lexical item.
Phase 2: The child constructs a rule for forming the past tense and begins to overgeneralize this rule to irregular forms such as go (resulting in forms such as goed).
Phase 3: The child learns that there are (many) exceptions to this rule and acquires the ability to apply this rule selectively.

Note that from the observer's or parents' perspectives, this development is 'U-shaped'--that is, children can appear to be decreasing rather than increasing in their accuracy of past-tense use as they enter phase 2. However, this apparent 'back-sliding' is an important sign of linguistic development."
(Kendall A. King, "Child Language Acquisition." An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, ed. by Ralph Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

A Child's Inborn Capacity for Learning Language

"Several observations . . . have led to the assumption by many, including linguists Noam Chomsky (1957) and Steven Pinker (1994), that human beings have an inborn capacity for learning language. No human culture on earth exists without language. Language acquisition follows a common course, regardless of the native language being learned. Whether a child is exposed to English or Cantonese, similar language structures appear at just about the same point in development. For example, children all over the world go through a stage in which they overapply language rules. Instead of saying, 'She went to the store,' the child will say 'She goed to the store.' Eventually, the older child will switch to the correct forms, long before any formal instruction." (John T. Cacioppo and Laura A. Freberg, Discovering Psychology: The Science of Mind. Wadsworth, 2013)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Overgeneralization Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/overgeneralization-in-grammar-1691365. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Overgeneralization Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/overgeneralization-in-grammar-1691365 Nordquist, Richard. "Overgeneralization Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/overgeneralization-in-grammar-1691365 (accessed May 29, 2023).