Function words vs. Content words

A parent of one of my little ones identified that her son is stuttering more on conjunctions such as “and” “but” and “after” than on any other words.  I briefly explained that she is not alone in this observation and she was very interested in reading the literature on this.  I can think of a couple studies, but was wondering if anyone suggests any studies/articles on this topic that may be of particular interest to a parent.


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About BrookeLeiman

Brooke Leiman is the Director of the Stuttering Clinic at National Speech/Language Therapy Center. In her time at National Speech, she has worked with preschoolers, school-aged children and adults who stutter, in both individual and group therapy sessions. She hosts a website,, which is dedicated to providing information for people who stutter. In 2014, she was selected to be on ASHA’s Coordinating Committee Project Team, which is helping develop the practice portal on Childhood Fluency Disorders. This document highlights current research and evidence-based practice related to the assessment and treatment of stuttering/cluttering.


Function words vs. Content words — 5 Comments

  1. Brooke,

    Yes, lots of reports have shown that younger children stutter more on function than content words on average. Bloodstein and Gantwerk (1967) were the first authorities to highlight this fact and offer an interpretation of the findings. Compared to adults, they reported increased propotions of stuttering in preschool children on conjunctions and pronouns and less on interjections and nouns. There were no differences for adjectives, adverbs, articles, prepositions, and verbs. They attributed this to a position effect, i.e., more stuttering on the first words uttered. Children often begin their utterances with “And-and-and-and…” or “I-I-I-I…” Later, they postulated, the first words of internal syntactic boundaries are more likely to be stuttered.

    Numerous more recent studies have reported similar results, but I think the Bloodstein & Gantwerk explanation makes sense. Perhaps Nan Ratner might have a better explanation.

    Ken St. Louis

  2. A number of people have made this observation over the years, most notably Bloodstein in his early work, which spurred my 1981 research (written under Bernstein) that confirmed the pattern (I can send the paper if anyone wants). Numbers of folks have written about this since then. Bloodstein originally thought the words hard to say, but later agreed with my estimation that the reason why they “attract” stutters is that they are the grammatical “glue” that start and link phrases in spoken language together. Since preschoolers are rather novice sentence builders, our hypothesis is that these items reflect the planning burden of building noun phrases, verb phrases, etc. Even in adult language, a certain amount of normal disfluency fits this pattern. Peter Howell has a number of compatible explanations for this phenomenon, but the notion that the function words carry the planning load and are therefore more disfluent in kid speech (adults are better and tend to show stuttering on content words, particularly those that are less frequent in the language, or are somehow associated with past speech difficulty)is the simplest explanation and most likely to be correct, IMHO.

    Cheers to all,
    Nanm (Bernstein Ratner)

    • I can’t believe that Ken replied 6 minutes before I chipped in. Thanks for the toss, Ken! cheers, Nan (spelled correctly because not rushing as fast tonight)

  3. Another question directed at Nan 🙂

    Research suggests that children who stutter may have subtle differences in their language abilities, both delayed and advanced. The same mother that identified that her child stutters more on function words, followed up her observation with predicting that if her child is stuttering on words that signify some difficulty with formulating complex sentences, he will no longer stutter as his language system develops and can handle the “advanced” demands he is placing on it. I see her point. However, doesn’t research suggest the opposite, that a child with advanced speech/language skills are at increased risk for persistent stuttering? How would you explain this?

  4. The data are not all that clear. What seems potentially possible is that CWS are attempting to PRODUCE language that is not in line with their standardized test scores, which tend to lag just slightly below those of peers. This is consistent with data from our labs, and the Conture labs, which find disparities between areas of knowledge that CWS display. Data from the Iowa study that were presented but not published, to my knowledge, suggested that kids who used more sophisticated/longer utterances became chronic, while those whose language skills became more consistent with age expectations recovered. Bonelli, Dixon and I did some analyses of kids treated by Lidcombe (Australian data from ASRC) that were also consistent with this hypothesis. There may be data soon from Purdue’s longitudinal study to add to this mix.