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Brown's Stages of Syntactic and Morphological Development

Typical expressive language development

"Brown's Stages" were identified by Roger Brown 1925-1997 (obituary) and described in his
classic book (Brown,1973). The stages provide a framework within which to understand and
predict the path that normal expressive language development in English usually takes, in terms
of morphology and syntax (defined below). They are used extensively by speech-language
pathologists /speech and language therapists when they perform a structural analysis of a
sample of a child's spoken language.
A structural analysis does not include a measure of a child's development in the area of the
clarity of pronunciation of speech sounds. Such an analysis is done in addition to a structural
analysis, and comprises, among other components, a phonetic assessment of the speech
sounds a child can produce, and a phonological assessment of the way those sounds are
organised into speech patterns.

In Linguistics, morphology is the branch of grammar devoted to the study of the structure or
forms of words, primarily through the use of the morpheme construct. It is traditionally
distinguished from syntax.

In Linguistics, syntax is a traditional term for the study the rules governing the combination of
words to form sentences. It is distinguished from morphology, which is the study of word

A morpheme is a unit of meaning. It does not necessarily relate to the "word count" or "syllable
count" of an utterance. Here is an example of the way morphemes are counted in the words
happy, unhappy, unhappily, and unhappiest, and the sentence 'He meets the unhappiest boys:
'Happy is ONE WORD, it has TWO SYLLABLES (ha-ppy), and because it contains only one
unit of meaning it is ONE MORPHEME.
If you add another unit of meaning, such as un, to make 'happy' into unhappy you still have
ONE WORD, but THREE SYLLABLES (un-ha-ppy) and TWO MORPHEMES (un and
'Unhappily' is ONE WORD, FOUR SYLLABLES (un-happ-i-ly), and THREE MORPHEMES ('un',
'happy' and 'ly').
'Unhappiest' is also ONE WORD, FOUR SYLLABLES (un-happ-i-est), and THREE
MORPHEMES ('un', 'happy', 'est').
He meets the unhappiest boys
'He meets the unhappiest boys' is 1-sentence, it has 5-words, and 8-syllables, and it contains
nine morphemes:
He meet s the un happi est boy s

8 9

The girl's mother slowly filled the bucket with water

'The girl's mother slowly filled the bucket with water' is 1-sentence, it has 9-words, and 13syllables, and it contains twelve morphemes:
The girl s mother slow ly fill ed the bucket with water

2 3




Stage I Sentence Types

Operations of Reference

Examples Communicative Intent


That car

That is a car.


More juice

There is more juice.

Negation - denial

No wee wee

I did not do a wee wee.

Negation - rejection

No more

I don't want more.

Negation - non-existence

Birdie go

The bird has gone.

Semantic Relations

Examples Communicative Intent

Action + Agent

Daddy kiss

Daddy is kissing.

Action + Object

Push truck

Pushing the truck.

Agent + Object

Man hat

The man (wears) a hat.

Action + Locative

In bath

I am in the bath.

Entity + Locative

Dolly bed

The dolly is on the bed.

Possessor + Possession (object)

Kim car

Kim's car.

Entity + Attributive

Water hot

The water is hot.

Demonstrative + Entity

This train

THIS train (not THAT train).

Brown's Stage I
Between 12 and 26 months, children are expected to have MLUm's (mean length of utterance
measured in morphemes) of about 1.75 morphemes (range 1.0 to 2.0 morphemes). Their
MLUms gradually increase as they acquire more language.
In Stage I, just after they have built up a 50 to 60 word vocabulary, children acquire the ability to
produce the Stage I sentence types, outlined in the table above. The column headed
'communicative intent' includes examples of what the child might have said if they were mature
enough to talk in full sentences.

Brown's Stages ("Brown's Morphemes") I to IV

As children's MLUm increases their capacity to learn and use grammatical structures of greater
complexity increases. They move from Stage I into Stage II, where they learn to use "-ing"
endings on verbs, "in", "on", and "-s" plurals. They then proceed to Stages III and IV.

Age in Mean MLUm

Months MLUm Range


Stage I




Stage I Sentence Types see above

Stage II





Present progressive (-ing) it going


in box


on box

s-plurals (regular plurals) my cars

Stage III




Irregular past tense

me fell down

's possessive

man's book

Uncontractible copula (the

full form of the verb to be
when it is the only verb in
a sentence)

Is it Alison?
Yes, it is.
Was it Alison?
Yes, it was.


A ball on the book.

Regular past tense

She jumped.


Third person regular,

present tense

The puppy chews it.

Jason likes you.


Third person irregular

She does. He has.


Uncontractible auxiliary
Are they swimming?
(the full form of the verb 'to Were you hungry?
be' when it is an auxiliary I'm not laughing; she is.
verb in a sentence)
She was laughing; not me.


Contractible copula (the

shortened form of the verb
'to be' when it is the only
verb in a sentence)

She's ready.
They're here.
Daddy's got tomatoes.
My dog's lost his collar.


Contractible auxiliary (the

shortened form of the verb
'to be' when it is an
auxiliary verb in a

They're coming.
He's going.
I'm opening it up.
We're hiding.
It's freezing.

Stage IV

Stage V



41-46+ 4.0



Cite this article as:
Bowen, C. (1998). Browns Stages of Syntactic and Morphological Development. Retrieved from on
[insert the date that you accessed the file here].