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Overgeneralization of SVO Word Order

In general, deaf students are quite successful in producing and comprehending English language structures that exhibit a straightforward SUBJECT VERB OBJECT (SVO) word order. As noted in the Grammatical Summary section, SVO word order is "disturbed," or altered, in many English structures, including questions, sentences with relative clauses, infinitive clauses, participial clauses, gerund clauses, and many other structures.

Many deaf students tend to "overgeneralize" SVO word order to other structures that actually deviate from SVO word order. This means that they expect structures to conform to SVO word order and therefore try to interpret structures as if they exhibited SVO word order. This expectation, of course, results in the misinterpretation of certain English structures and the failure to master many grammatical structures.


English questions pose a challenge for many deaf students because of the readjustment of SVO order and the introduction of helping verbs, such as do, as illustrated in the examples below (Berent, 1996b; Quigley, Wilbur, and Montanelli, 1974). Many deaf students will misinterpret such questions or will have difficulty producing them.

Do (V) the students (S) study (V) physics (O)?

What (O) did (V) the students (S) buy (V)?

Relative Clauses

The same is true of sentences containing relative clauses, as in the examples below. Sentences with relative clauses have been shown to pose considerable difficulty for deaf students in reading comprehension and written expression (de Villiers, 1988; Quigley, Smith, & Wilbur, 1974).

The teacher (S) read (V) the book (O) which (O) the student (S) found (V).

The book (S) which (O) the student (S) found (V) explains (V) English grammar (O).

The relative clause in the first example exhibits OSV word order, but it follows, rather than "interrupts," the main clause. Such sentences are difficult for many deaf students but are less difficult than sentences in which the relative clause interrupts the main clause, as in the second example (Lillo-Martin, Hanson, & Smith, 1992 ; Quigley, Smith, & Wilbur, 1974). The position of the relative clause in the second example results in the separation of the main clause subject, the book, from the main clause verb, explains. The distance between the main clause subject and verb makes such sentences more difficult to interpret.

Infinitive Clauses

Sentences with infinitive clauses, as in the following examples, are also often difficult for deaf students. Such sentences can be difficult because the infinitive clauses deviate from SVO word order and also because there is generally no explicit subject of the infinitive.

The instructor (S) persuaded (V) Mary (O) to take (V) that course (O).

The students (S) asked (V) the teacher (O) what (O) to read (V).

Speakers of English unconsciously follow principles that guide the interpretation of the logical subject of an infinitive. In the first example above, it is Mary who is understood as the person who will take that course; in the second example, it is the students who are understood as the persons who will read something. Research has shown that the proper interpretation of such sentences is very difficult for many deaf students (Berent, 1983). For further information, see the SEA Site module on Logical Subjects of Infinitives.

Participial and Gerund Clauses

Research has also shown that sentences containing participial clauses and gerund clauses are also difficult for many deaf students. The examples below illustrate how sentences containing participles and gerunds deviate from SVO word order.

Finishing (V) the book (O), the student (S) completed (V) the assignment (O).

The students (S) enjoyed (V) taking (V) that course (O).

Not only does the lack of an explicit subject for the participle in the first sentence and the gerund in the second sentence create non-SVO word orders in those clauses, but the language learner must also be able to interpret who the understood, or logical, subject of the participle or gerund is. As with the interpretation of sentences containing infinitives, speakers of English unconsciously follow principles that guide the interpretation of the logical subject of a participle or gerund. For many deaf students, interpretation of sentences containing these grammatical elements is very difficult.