Seminar Series

Focus particles, parsing and interpretation

When we read a sentence there are a number of psychological processes that must take place within the language processing system in order for us to develop an understanding of what the sentence means. We must identify each of the lexical items, compute the syntactic structure of the sentence, and assign an interpretation to the sentence. Most theoretical accounts of text understanding (e.g. Sanford & Garrod, 1981; Johnson-Laird, 1983; Kamp & Reyle, 1993) assume that a reader interprets a sentence by constructing a discourse model that is a mental representation of people, objects and events described in the text. An important question in psycholinguistic research is whether processing decisions at one level of representation (e.g. the discourse model) can influence lower-level processing decisions (e.g. decisions about syntactic structure). "Restricted" theories, such as the Garden Path theory (Frazier, 1979), requires that higher level processing decisions do not have an influence initial syntactic processing decisions but may aid reanalysis. In contrast, the Referential theory (e.g. Crain & Steedman, 1985, Altmann & Steedman, 1988; Ni, Crain, & Shankweiler, 1996) allows for higher order influences on the syntactic processing of ambiguous sentences. Finally, Constraint Satisfaction accounts (e.g. MacDonald, 1994; Sedivy, in press) stipulate that higher order factors can influence the syntactic processing of ambiguous and unambiguous sentences. Over the past few years several researchers have investigated whether including a focus particle (e.g. only, even, just) can influence syntactic processing decisions for temporarily ambiguous sentences, e.g. 1. 1. Only horses raced past the barn fell. Focus particles have an important influence on the construction of discourse models, as they indicate that a contrast is to be made between the referent of an expression in the sentence and a set of alternatives (Rooth, 1992). The question is, do they in turn influence the processing of syntactic ambiguities? I will present a series of eye tracking studies in which we investigated the influence of only on the syntactic processing of temporarily ambiguous sentences (Paterson, Liversedge, & Underwood, 1999; Liversedge, Paterson, & Clayes, in press; Filik, Paterson, & Liversedge, 2001). In contrast to other studies of the influence of only on the processing of syntactic ambiguities (Ni et al, 1996; Clifton, Bock, & Rado, 2000; Sedivy, in press) our results suggest that focus particles have a limited influence on syntactic processing, depending on the structure of the ambiguous sentence. Altmann, G. T. M., & Steedman, M. (1988). Interaction with context during human sentence processing. Cognition, 30, 191-238. Crain, S., & Steedman, M. (1985). On not being led up the garden path: The use of context by the psychological syntax processor. In D. R. Dowty, L. Kartunnen, and A. M. Zwicky (Eds.), Natural language parsing: Psychological, computational, and theoretical perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Garrod, S. C., & Sanford, A. J. (1994). Resolving sentences in a discourse context. In M. A. Gernsbacher (Ed.), Handbook of Psycholinguistics, 675-698. New York: Academic Press. Frazier, L. (1979). On comprehending sentences: Sentence parsing strategies. Ph.D thesis, University of Connecticut. Indiana University Linguistics Club. Filik, R., Paterson, K. B., & Liversedge, S. P. (2001). Parsing with focus particles in context. Paper presented at 'From parsing to discourse processing' workshop at University of Utrecht, 1st - 3rd July. Kamp, H., & Reyle, U. (1993). From discourse to logic: Introduction to model-theoretic semantics of Natural language, formal logic and discourse representation theory. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic. Liversedge, S. P., Paterson, K. B., & Clayes, E. (in press). The influence of only on the syntactic processing of "long" relative clause sentence. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. MacDonald (1994). Probabilistic constraints and syntactic ambiguity resolution. Language and Cognitive Processes, 9, 157-201. Ni, W., Crain, S., & Shankweiler, D. (1996). Sidestepping garden paths: The contribution of syntax, semantics and plausibility in resolving ambiguities. Language and Cognitive Processes, 11, 283-334. Paterson, K. B., Liversedge, S. P., & Underwood, G., (1998). The influence of focus operators on syntactic processing of short relative clause sentences. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52A, 717-737. Rooth, M. (1992). A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics, 1, 75-116. Sedivy, J. C. (in press). Invoking discourse-based contrast sets and resolving syntactic ambiguities. Journal of Memory and Language.