Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Discourse Structure and Relative Clause Processing

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Discourse Structure and Relative Clause Processing

Article excerpt

Studies in several languages have shown that subject-relative clauses are easier to process than object-relative clauses. Mak, Vonk, and Schriefers (2006) have proposed the topichood hypothesis to account for the preference for subject-relative clauses. This hypothesis claims that the entity in the relative clause that is most topicworthy will be chosen as the subject. By default, the antecedent of the relative clause will be chosen as the subject of the relative clause, because it is the topic of the relative clause. However, when the noun phrase (NP) in the relative clause is also topicworthy, the preference for the antecedent to be the subject will disappear. This was confirmed in two experiments. In Experiment 1, we tested relative clauses with a personal pronoun in the relative clause. We obtained a preference for object-relative clauses, in line with the assumption that personal pronouns refer to a discourse topic and are thus topicworthy. In Experiment 2, the discourse status of the NP in the relative clause was manipulated; either it was not present in the preceding context, or it was the discourse topic. The experiment showed that when the NP in the relative clause refers to the discourse topic, the difficulty of object-relative clauses is reduced, in comparison with relative clauses with an NP that is new in the discourse, even in the absence of any explicit cue in the relative clause itself. The experiments show that discourse factors guide processing at the sentence level.

Sentence processing has most often been studied using isolated sentences. However, normally, sentences are embedded in a meaningful context, and this context may influence processing at the sentence level. In line with this consideration, there is a growing interest in how processing at the sentence level is related to the context in which the sentence is embedded.

Referential ambiguity is one area in which a considerable amount of research has been carried out on the influence of context on sentence processing (e.g., Altmann & Steedman, 1988; Cram & Steedman, 1985; Mitchell, Corley, & Garnham, 1992; van Berkum, Brown, & Hagoort, 1999). For example, after reading the sentence fragment David told the girl that... out of context, readers interpret the word that as a complementizer, introducing a complement clause that must be attached to the verb told. When the same fragment is embedded in a context mentioning two girls, there is ambiguity concerning the referent of the noun phrase (NP) the girl. This referential ambiguity induces readers to interpret the word (hat as a relative pronoun, because they expect a clause modifying the girl, so that the correct referent in the context can be identified (van Berkum et al., 1999).

These findings show that a preference for a certain syntactic analysis at the sentence level can be modulated by the context in which the sentence is embedded. This is due to the fact that sentences in & text form a coherent whole and the interpretation of a sentence depends on the context of that sentence. Often, sentences in a text are coherent because they are about the same referent, the discourse topic. Hoeks, Vonk, and Schriefers (2002) showed that the topic structure of a text influenced processing decisions at the sentence level for coordinations such as those in Sentences 1 and 2:

1. The model embraced the designer and the photographer at the party.

2. The model embraced the designer and the photographer laughed.

Reading such sentences in isolation, readers initially prefer to coordinate the NP the photographer with the NP the designer, so that the two NPs together are the object of the sentence. They perceive the sentences as being about one topic, the model as in Sentence 1, rather than as being about two topics, the model and the photographer, as in Sentence 2. This leads to processing difficulty at the verb in Sentence 2. Hoeks et al. showed that when Sentence 2 was preceded by a neutral context, this processing difficulty was indeed present. …

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