Pragmatic failure and referential ambiguity when attorneys ask child witnesses "do you know/remember" questions

Angela D. Evans, Stacia Roosevelt, Thomas D. Lyon

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    21 Scopus citations


    "Do you know" and "Do you remember" (DYK/R) questions explicitly ask whether one knows or remembers some information while implicitly asking for that information. This study examined how 4- to 9-year-old (N = 104) children testifying in child sexual abuse cases responded to DYK/R wh- (who, what, where, why, how, and which) and yes/no questions. When asked DYK/R questions containing an implicit wh- question requesting information, children often provided unelaborated "yes" responses. Attorneys' follow-up questions suggested that children usually misunderstood the pragmatics of the questions. When DYK/R questions contained an implicit yes/no question, unelaborated "yes" or "no" responses could be responding to the explicit or the implicit questions resulting in referentially ambiguous responses. Children often provided referentially ambiguous responses and attorneys usually failed to disambiguate children's answers. Although pragmatic failure following DYK/R wh- questions decreased with age, the likelihood of referential ambiguity following DYK/R yes/no questions did not. The results highlight the risks of serious miscommunications caused by pragmatic misunderstanding and referential ambiguity when children testify.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)191-199
    Number of pages9
    JournalPsychology, Public Policy, and Law
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - May 2017


    • Child witnesses
    • Pragmatics
    • Referential ambiguity
    • Testimony

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Psychology
    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Law


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