Ward, Peter Maurice
The time course of sentence interpretation.
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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The investigation of Shallow Processing, also known as Underspecification, and ‘Good Enough’ processing, is a relatively new branch of psycholinguistics. A growing body of evidence within this field indicates that, in some cases, the comprehension system will fail to build or retain a fully specified representation for linguistic input. As a result, the construction of underspecified representations may lead to erroneous interpretations, and the phenomenon of Pragmatic Normalisation is a central instance of this: comprehenders sometimes construct interpretations that reflect pragmatic knowledge rather than the grammatically licensed meaning of the input. Some researchers have suggested that shallow processing can be explained in terms of the comprehension system using reliable – but essentially statistical – heuristic interpretation processes. This heuristic style of interpretation is in contrast with interpretative processes that construct meaning based on the syntactic structure of a string, and one outstanding question is how these different interpretation processes operate in real time.
In a series of eight experiments this thesis investigated the time course of sentence interpretation via a study of pragmatic normalisation. Experiments 1-6 probed interpretations of syntactically unambiguous, implausible sentences, replicating some earlier studies and reporting surprisingly high levels of unlicensed interpretations. Experiments 2-8 used a variety of implausible constructions to investigate the temporal relation of syntax-based interpretation to heuristics-based interpretation. Both self-paced reading and eyetracking data are supportive of a processing model in which syntax informs the interpretation process first, but is later overruled by pragmatic constraints. Investigations into the conditions for shallow processing indicate a role for memory and syntactic complexity, and the opportunity to reread implausible material. An investigation into the impact of reading skill on the tendency to normalise implausible sentences yielded inconsistent results, and there is apparently little difference in the processing styles of skilled and less-skilled readers when reading implausible material. The thesis concludes with suggestions for future work to further elucidate the time course of syntactic vs. heuristic interpretation.
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