10 Language Mistakes Kids Make That Are Actually Pretty Smart

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Little kids make such cute mistakes when they talk. We know they're still learning the language, so we tolerate their errors and chuckle at how funny they sound. Behind that chuckle is the assumption that the kids are getting it wrong because they just don't know the rules yet. In fact, kids' mistakes show they know a lot more about the rules than we think. The mistakes are evidence of very smart hypotheses the kids are forming from the limited data they've been given so far. Here are 10 really smart language mistakes that kids make.

1. "Dop it!" instead of "stop it!"

It's not easy to start a word with a consonant cluster. Kids don't have the fine motor control they need to produce the 'st' in stop, but they don't just leave it out. They substitute a sound they can produce. 'D' is a very smart substitution for 'st' in "stop." If you take a careful look at the acoustics of 't' in adult versions of "stop" vs. "top," you see that the 't's in those words look different from each other. The vocal cords kick in sooner for the 't' in "stop." A 'd' is basically a 't' where the vocal cords kick in sooner, so when children substitute that sound, they show they've heard the difference between "stop" and "top" and hypothesized that it's important for the language. And they are right!

2. Calls the dog "baby."

When children start using words, they haven't figured out all the situations in which they apply. They form hypotheses about word meaning and apply them on their own. The child might call all the kids and pets in the family "baby," but not the parents, revealing a hypothesis that "baby" means "family member who other people have to get food for." She may call everyone she meets "baby," extending the hypothesis to "living creatures." Like any good scientist, she can only confirm her hypothesis by testing it. Eventually, she will get enough data to settle on the right one.

3. Points to something and says "thank you" when he wants it.

This mistake shows complex knowledge of pragmatics, or the meaning of words in contexts. He knows that "thank you" is not the name of a thing in the world, but is rather something we say in a specific context. "Thank you" occurs in the context of a transfer of possession. He's saying, "Let's do that thing where 'thank you' gets said." Very clever way to try to bring about a transfer of possession!

4. "Baby drink. Milk all-gone!"

At about 18 months, children start putting two words together in phrases. But these phrases aren't just words haphazardly thrown in next to each other—they are mini sentences that express the relationships that full sentences do. "Baby drink" refers to the relation "actor performs an action." The words come in the same order they would in a grammatical sentence: subject verb. "Milk all-gone" expresses "object has some quality," and those words also come in the correct order: noun (is) adjective. The child has figured out that word order matters a lot in English for making those relations clear.

5. "I goed fast!"

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Most children go through a phase where they treat irregular verbs like they are regular. The interesting thing is that they do this after they have already learned the irregular versions. They may say "went fast" for a while, when "went" is just a word they've heard a few times. Later they notice the larger pattern—words take –ed in the past tense. Only when they've noticed that pattern, do they start making these overregularization errors. "I goed fast" is a sign that the child is not just saying words, but figuring out the larger important patterns that relate words to each other.

6. "I can't will go today."

Auxiliary verbs are hard! Can, will, do, would, should, might—there are so many little words that change the meaning of a clause. They pile up on top of each other, sometimes contracting into smaller versions, and who knows what order you're supposed to put them in? When kids pile these up, even if they don't do it correctly, they are making an amazing attempt to fit a lot of meanings together in one clause. "I can't will go today" includes information about permission status (can), negation (n't), and future tense (will) in one sentence. Trying these kinds of constructions out is a major step toward serious grammatical complexity.

7. "Ha ha. I won you."

This is not a bad guess. English has tons of verbs that can be intransitive (I watched, I pushed, I drew) or transitive (I watched you; I pushed you; I drew you.) Typically, situations where one person takes an action that affects another person will have a transitive verb associated with them. For a competitive kid of a certain age, what situation could be more stereotypically "one person affecting another" than when somebody wins?

8. "What are you eating it?"

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Questions are complicated. When you ask a question like "what are you eating," you have a situation—"you are eating it"—that you want to know something about—"you are eating what?" The child has to figure out that to ask this question in English you have to move the object of inquiry, the "what," to the beginning of the sentence, and then switch the places of "you" and "are." In "what are you eating it?" the child has correctly switched "you" and "are" and moved the "what" to the beginning. But perhaps she then felt this movement left an empty space where there shouldn't be one, and so she sticks the "it" in to fill the hole. She is making extra sure the sentence is complete.

9. "Mommy, you're a grown up. I'm a grown down."

This shows that not only has the child learned that "up" is the opposite of "down," but that that sense of oppositeness can be applied to the relationship between "adult" and "kid" in a meaningful way. Just the kind of analogy-making that came in handy when learning the difference between "good guy" and "bad guy" or "backyard" and "front yard."

10. "Unless I will get a lollipop, if I won't will get dressed fast."

So much going on here. Clausal connectors like "unless" and "if" are some of the last words that children master. In fact, when used in tests of logical reasoning, many adults have problems with them too. The child here is combining two statements: 1. Unless I get a lollipop, I won't get dressed fast. 2. I will get a lollipop if I get dressed fast. He stipulates his conditions for getting dressed fast and lays out the anticipated consequences of his getting dressed fast all in one extremely complex blend. Before we can say he's mastered English, he needs to simplify this construction down to a level that even adults can understand.

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Why Do We Call Coffee ‘a Cup of Joe’?

Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels
Photo by Rodolfo Quirós from Pexels

By Samantha Enslen, Quick and Dirty Tips

Raise your mug and take a sip because today we’re looking at some of the weird words we use to talk about coffee.

Coffee Comes From the Turkish Word Kahveh

Let’s start with the word coffee itself. It comes from the Turkish word kahveh, and it seems to have come into European languages around 1600. (6) That’s because coffee beans were first brought from North Africa and the Middle East into Italy in 1615, and then into France in 1644. There, the Turkish ambassador to France, Suleiman Aga, helped to make coffee the “it” beverage in the court of Louis XIV. (4)

The European aristocracy became enchanted by the thick, hot beverage. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Back then, the word coffee appeared in a lot of different forms: chaona, cahve, kauhi, cahu, coffa, and caffa. Eventually, these all settled down into the coffee we know today. (6)

Battery Acid, Crumb Coffee, and Unicorn Frappuccinos

Over time, we’ve come to know coffee by a bunch of different terms. We’ve called bad or poorly made coffee “battery acid,” “belly wash,” and “sludge.” (4) And a certain brand’s coffee is sometimes called “charbucks” by those who don’t appreciate really dark-roasted coffee.

We’ve called fake coffee “Boston coffee,” “Canadian coffee,” and “crumb coffee.” These so-called coffees were made in the U.S. after the Revolutionary War, when Americans were abstaining from tea because of high British taxes, yet also suffering from high coffee prices. These three coffee substitutes were made, respectively, from rye, peas, and burnt bread. (4)

I can’t really imagine how they would have tasted.

Today, we often refer to coffee by the way it’s made: drip coffee, press coffee, moka pot coffee, instant coffee, and siphon coffee, for example. (3)

Americans have borrowed the British expression “a cuppa,” referring to a cup of tea, and now use it willy-nilly to refer to a cup of coffee. (5)

And of course, we have all the made-up names for coffee we could ever want, courtesy of today’s gourmet coffee shops: unicorn frappucinos and caramel flan macchiatos are just two of many.

Why Do We Call Coffee a ‘Cup of Joe’?

One of the most common ways we’ve referred to coffee in the past century is to call it a “cup of joe.” Why do we do that? The real answer is that we’re not quite sure, but there are some theories.

One theory is that it’s named after Josephus Daniels, a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. In 1914, he banned alcohol from being served on Navy ships. After that, coffee would have been the strongest drink allowed onboard. So, the theory goes, sailors started calling coffee “Joe” to spite Secretary Josephus.

The problem is most alcohol had already been banned on Navy ships 50 years earlier. A daily ration of grog was once normal on Navy ships, but an 1862 edict put that practice to rest. So by 1914, the only hard stuff that would have been left was wine served in the officer’s mess. So Josephus’s ban wouldn’t have had much effect on the average … well … the average Joe. (7)

Another theory is that this name for coffee is based on an African-American spiritual written by Stephen Foster, called “Old Black Joe.” There is a comic strip from 1911 that describes this phrase as meaning coffee without milk. The problem is the comic is making a joke, suggesting that when that song is played in a restaurant, it means a customer wants coffee. The song itself never mentions coffee. And the song was popular way back in the 1860s. So it doesn’t make sense that it generated a slang term that wasn’t popular until the 1930s. (2,7)

Java + Mocha = Jamoke

The most likely reason a “cup of joe” means a cup of coffee is that joe is a shortened form of jamoke, which is a combination of the words java and mocha. (2)

Remember how I said that coffee was exported from North Africa and the Middle East starting in the 1600s?

Well, Dutch traders at that time wanted to get in on the action. They began moving into Southeast Asia and Indonesia and setting up coffee plantations on islands like Sumatra, Bali, and Java. They probably used the term java to refer to coffee beans grown on that island. They were essentially the original advertisers of single-origin coffee.

For some reason, the term java took hold with the public. Over time, it came to mean coffee generically, not just coffee from that island.

At the same time coffee was being produced in Indonesia, it was also being produced and traded in Yemen. That’s where arabica coffee beans originated; they’re native to both Yemen and Ethiopia. Traders buying coffee from Yemen had to stop in the port city of Mocha, and from there, they often sailed on to Java. When they combined the beans from those two countries, they created “Mocha Java," also known as “jamoke.”* And the shortened version of that, of course, is “joe.” (1)

That’s our best guess as to why a cup of coffee is also called a “cup of joe.” I hope you enjoyed a cuppa today, and I hope that it was more unicorn than sludge.

*Just like the original coffee, jamoke has seen several alternative spellings across the years: jamoca, jamoch, jamok, and jamoka have all turned up.


1. Driftaway Coffee. Why is Coffee Called Java? Accessed September 23, 2019.

2. Green, Jonathon. Joe, jamoke. Green’s Dictionary of Slang, digital edition. Accessed September 23, 2019.

3. Home Grounds. The Complete Guide to Coffee Brewing Methods. Accessed September 23, 2019.

4. Mariani, John. Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. Bloomsbury, USA, 2013.

5. Not One-Off Britishisms. Cuppa. Accessed September 23, 2019.

6. Oxford English Dictionary, digital edition. Joe. Accessed September 23, 2019.

7. Snopes.com. Why is coffee called a “cup of Joe”? January 19, 2009. Accessed September 23, 2019.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as "Why Do We Call Coffee ‘a Cup of Joe’?" Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.