Young children's understanding of the epistemic and deontic meanings of ask and tell

Breanne E. Wylie, Kelly McWilliams, Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Angela D. Evans, Thomas D. Lyon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The verbs ask and tell can be used both epistemically, referring to the flow of information, and deontically, referring to obligations through polite requests or commands. Some researchers suggest that children's understanding of deontic modals emerges earlier than their understanding of epistemic modals, possibly because theory of mind is required to understand epistemic modals. In the current study, 184 children aged 3-6 years were presented with vignettes depicting epistemic and deontic asking and telling and were asked whether the speaker asked or told, followed by first-order theory-of-mind tasks. An emergence of both epistemic and deontic understanding was found at 5 years of age, and both were correlated with children's theory-of-mind understanding. These findings are consistent with arguments that both epistemic and deontic understanding implicate theory-of-mind awareness and provide insight into the developmental trajectory of children's understanding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)105516
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - Dec 1 2022


  • Ask
  • Deontic
  • Epistemic
  • Linguistic development
  • Tell
  • Theory of mind

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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