Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Enhancement and Suppression Effects Resulting from Information Structuring in Sentences

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Enhancement and Suppression Effects Resulting from Information Structuring in Sentences

Article excerpt

Information structuring through the use of cleft sentences increases the processing efficiency of references to elements within the scope of focus. Furthermore, there is evidence that putting certain types of emphasis on individual words not only enhances their subsequent processing, but also protects these words from becoming suppressed in the wake of subsequent information, suggesting mechanisms of enhancement and suppression. In Experiment 1, we showed that clefted constructions facilitate the integration of subsequent sentences that make reference to elements within the scope of focus, and that they decrease the efficiency with reference to elements outside of the scope of focus. In Experiment 2, using an auditory text-change-detection paradigm, we showed that focus has similar effects on the strength of memory representations. These results add to the evidence for enhancement and suppression as mechanisms of sentence processing and clarify that the effects occur within sentences having a marked focus structure.

The relative importance of particular parts of a sentence is signaled through devices of information structuring and prosodic stress, which control the focus of information within sentences, as is made clear in an extensive linguistic literature (see, e.g., Gundel, 1999; Halliday, 1967; Jackendoff, 1972; Rooth, 1992). In the present article, our interest is in the cognitive effects of linguistic prominence, which can be manipulated through information structuring devices, such as the it-cleft construction. This construction is illustrated in (1), which shows how an it-cleft structure can signal prominence linguistically.

(1) It was Harry who threw the snowball at Mary.

This construction consists of a presupposed part-that someone threw a snowball at Mary (Delin, 1992; Prince, 1978)-and a new assertion, that Harry was the person who did the throwing (see, e.g., Hedberg, 2000; Prince, 1978). Use of the it-cleft structure clearly distinguishes the given from the new information and enables speakers to single out the clefted constituent in order to focus attention on it (Hedberg, 2000). Linguistic analyses suggest that the cleft-it 1 copula 1 clefted constituent-puts the clefted constituent into referential focus. Effectively, sentence (1) answers the question Who threw the snowball, putting emphasis on Harry as opposed to on any other individual; hence, the effect of clefting is referred to as contrastive focus (e.g., Rooth, 1992).

It is already well established that linguistic focus leads to a privileged and deeper analysis of the focused term. For instance, the Moses illusion in form (2) is easily missed, whereas in (3) it is not (Bredart & Modolo, 1988):

(2) Moses put two of each animal on the Ark, true or false?

(3) It was Moses who put two of each animal on the Ark, true or false?

The point of this illusion is that people do not usually notice that it was Noah, not Moses, who put the animals on the Ark. However, because the cleft construction in (3) causes a deeper analysis of the term Moses, detection of the anomaly is higher in this case. A variety of other studies have shown that focused elements are more easily processed at the discourse level. Cutler and Fodor (1979) manipulated contrastive focus through discourse context, presenting sentences such as (4) or (5) before the target sentence (6):

(4) Which man was wearing the hat?

(5) What hat was the man wearing?

(6) The man on the corner was wearing the blue hat.

Sentence (4) has the effect of putting The man on the corner into narrow focus, whereas (5) has the effect of putting the blue hat into narrow focus. Using a phoneme monitoring task, it was found that the phoneme detection latency was shorter for words in the scope of focus than for words outside of the scope of focus. Similar evidence of enhancement was found by Sturt, Sanford, Stewart, and Dawydiak (2004), who used a visual presentation. …

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