Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Linguistic Focus and Memory: An Eye Movement Study

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Linguistic Focus and Memory: An Eye Movement Study

Article excerpt

We report an eyetracking study investigating the effects of linguistic focus on eye movements and memory during two readings of a text. Across two presentations of the text, a critical word either changed to a semantically related word or remained unchanged. Focus on the critical word was manipulated using context. Eye movements were monitored during reading, and there was a secondary task of detecting the word change. Results indicated that when a word changed, participants were more successful at detecting it when it was in focus. In the second display, there were more fixations and longer viewing times on a changed than on an unchanged word, but only when the critical word was in focus; eye movement data for changed and unchanged words did not differ when the word was not in focus. We suggest that linguistic focus leads to more detailed lexical semantic representations but not more effortful initial encoding of information.

The focus of a sentence has been defined as the information that is most prominent or emphasized within it (Chomsky, 1971; Halliday, 1967). There are a number of ways in which linguistic entities can become focused. In written language, information about focus can be conveyed through syntactic structure or context, but in spoken language, focus can also be conveyed by intonation. The term focus has been used in many different ways in the literature: In the discourse processing literature, for example, focus often refers to a salient individual in the discourse, such as the first character to be mentioned (Gernsbacher & Hargreaves, 1988). However, in this article we use the term focus in a slightly different, semantic sense. For example, in the default interpretation of the cleft sentence below, the cleft element John is in focus:

( 1 ) It was John who married my sister.

In terms of semantics, the sentence implies that John is being singled out as the person who married the sister, in contrast to other individuals who might have done so (Rooth, 1995). Note that a sentence that includes a focused entity can be naturally interpreted as an answer to an implied question. In Example 1, the sentence is a natural answer to the question Who married your sister? The idea of focus supplying the answer to some implied question becomes particularly clear when we consider the use of embedded questions as a focusing device, as in Example 2:

(2) Susan asked her son which prize he had won.

It was the prize for spelling.

In this case, the focusing question introduced by which prize is embedded in the first sentence, resulting in an interpretation of the second sentence in which focus falls on the phrase the prize for spelling.

There are a number of processing benefits associated with focused items. Listeners detect target phonemes more quickly when they are part of focused phrases in a phoneme monitoring task (Cutler & Fodor, 1979). Moreover, readers are more likely to detect an anomaly when it occurs as part of the sentence focus. For example, under normal conditions, people often fail to notice the anomaly in the Moses illusion (Erickson & Mattson, 1981): They typically do not notice that Noah rather than Moses is the one who should be named in the sentence Moses put two of each kind of animal onto the ark. However, Bredart and Modolo (1988) showed that people are much more likely to notice the anomaly when Moses is focused by means of a cleft construction, as in It was Moses who put two of each kind of animal onto the ark. Moreover, Gergely (1992) found that focusing relevant information facilitates inference, and Birch and Garnsey's (1995) experiments on focus and memory demonstrated a strong impact of linguistic focus on the memory representations for sentences, showing that target words identical to previously focused words were facilitated in a recognition task both with and without a delay.

Short, Sanford, Stewart, and Dawydiak (2004) used a new technique to further investigate the effects of focus on memory. …

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