Act-out and intermodal preferential looking (IPL) tasks were administered to 67 English children aged 2-0, 2-9 and 3-5 to assess their comprehension of canonical SVO transitive word order with both familiar and novel verbs. Children at 3-5 and at 2-9 showed evidence of comprehending word order in both verb conditions and both tasks, although children at 2-9 performed better with familiar than with novel verbs in the act-out task. Children at 2-0 showed no evidence of comprehending word order in either task with novel verbs; with familiar verbs they showed competence in the IPL task but not in the act-out task. The difference in performance for familiar and novel verbs from the same children at 2-0, on the IPL task, and at 2-9, on the act-out task, is consistent with the hypothesis that early linguistic/cognitive representations are graded in strength, with early representations still weak and very task dependent. However, these representations also become more abstract with development, as indicated by the familiarity effect even in the more sensitive IPL task. © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.