What Is Overregularization in Grammar?

Why Young Children Say "Foots" and "Goed"

child speaking to mother
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Overregularization is a part of the language-learning process in which children extend regular grammatical patterns to irregular words, such as the use of "goed " for "went", or "tooths" for "teeth". This is also known as regularization.

"Although technically wrong," says Kathleen Stassen Berger, "overregularization is actually a sign of verbal sophistication: it shows that children are applying the rules." Meanwhile, "The cure for overregularization," according to Steven Pinker and Alan Prince, "is living longer, thereby hearing irregular past tense forms more often and strengthening [children's] memory traces." 

An Example of Overregularization

"He is a perfectly healthy little boy with no more fears and worries than any other youngsters his age [two and a half], but one night he awakens screaming for Mommy and Daddy. 'Ginger bited me!' he wails. Ginger is the little cocker spaniel next door. Stevie had been playing with him that afternoon. Mother had been there the whole time. Ginger had not bitten Stevie. 'No, darling, Ginger didn't bite you!' says Mama, comforting him. 'He did. He bited me on my foot.'" 
(Selma H. Fraiberg, "The Magic Years")

What Children's "Errors" Tell Us

"Children's errors...give us an idea about the state of their developing grammar systems. In fact, it may be inappropriate even to call them errors since they are often logical forms for the child's current state of development. The kinds of variation from adult rules that children make are often not ones that parents are likely to have made in any context, so children did not learn these variations through repetition. What parent would say to a child, often enough for the child to have acquired through repetition: 'The baby goed home' or 'The baby wented home,' 'My feets hurt' or even 'My foots hurt'? In each of these utterances, it is clear that the child has figured out a commonly used structure rule but has not yet learned that there are exceptions to the rule."
(Elizabeth Winkler, "Understanding Language: A Basic Course in Linguistics", 2nd ed.) 

Overregularization and Plurality

"[O]ne of the first rules that English-speaking children apply is to add -s to form the plural. Overregularization leads many young children to talk about 'foots', 'tooths', 'sheeps', and 'mouses'. They may even put the -s on adjectives when the adjectives are acting as nouns, as in this dinner-table exchange between my 3-year-old and her father:

Sarah: I want somes.​
Father: You want some what?
Sarah: I want some mores.
Father: Some more what?
Sarah: I want some more chickens.​
Although technically wrong, overregularization is actually a sign of verbal sophistication: it shows that children are applying the rules. Indeed, as young children become more conscious of grammatical usages, they exhibit increasingly sophisticated misapplication of them. A child who at age 2 correctly says she 'broke' a glass may at age 4 say she 'braked' one and then at age 5 say she 'did braked' another."(Kathleen Stassen Berger, "The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence")

Regularizing the Language

"Regularization errors have been taken as evidence either that children rely on a template or schema for producing a stem and inflection, or that they have started to make use of an abstract rule . . ..

"Many observers, from at least Rousseau on, have noticed that children tend to regularize their language, getting rid of many irregular forms in adult use. Berko (1958) was one of the first people to offer experimental evidence that by age five to seven, children had identified different inflectional affixes and were able to add them to nonsense stems they had never heard before."
(Eve V. Clark, "First Language Acquisition")
 

Overregularization and Language Development

"[O]verregularization errors occur over protracted periods of development. Marcus et al. demonstrated that the rate of overregularization is much lower than was typically assumed, i.e., children usually do not overregularize more often than 5-10% of the irregular verbs in their expressive vocabularies at any given time. Furthermore, the correct past tense form co-occurs with the incorrect version."
(Jeffrey L. Elman et al., "Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development")

Sources

"The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence", 2003.

"Regular and Irregular Morphology and the Psychological Status of Rules of Grammar" in "The Reality of Linguistic Rules", 1994.

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Overregularization in Grammar?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 17, 2018, thoughtco.com/overregularization-in-grammar-1691465. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 17). What Is Overregularization in Grammar? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/overregularization-in-grammar-1691465 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Overregularization in Grammar?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/overregularization-in-grammar-1691465 (accessed May 27, 2018).