Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Basis for Generating Expectancies for Verbs from Nouns

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Basis for Generating Expectancies for Verbs from Nouns

Article excerpt

We explore the implications of an event-based expectancy generation approach to language understanding, suggesting that one useful strategy employed by comprehenders is to generate expectations about upcoming words. We focus on two questions: (1) What role is played by elements other than verbs in generating expectancies? (2) What connection exists between expectancy generation and event-based knowledge? Because verbs follow their arguments in many constructions (particularly in verb-final languages), deferring expectations until the verb seems inefficient. Both human data and computational modeling suggest that other sentential elements may also play a role in predictive processing and that these constraints often reflect knowledge regarding typical events. We investigated these predictions, using both short and long stimulus onset asynchrony priming. Robust priming obtained when verbs were named aloud following typical agents, patients, instruments, and locations, suggesting that event memory is organized so that nouns denoting entities and objects activate the classes of events in which they typically play a role. These computations are assumed to be an important component of expectancy generation in sentence processing.

The role of expectancy generation in sentence processing has attracted increased attention over the past several years. There has long been reason to believe that comprehenders generate expectations about upcoming words as they process sentences presented incrementally (Kutas & Hillyard, 1984; Marslen-Wilson & Welsh, 1978), and computational modeling suggests that implicit expectancy generation can lead to the discovery of underlying syntactic structure (Elman, 1990). More recently, a number of researchers have suggested that although language understanding is clearly about more than simply anticipating what comes next, expectation does appear to play a critical role in language processing (Altmann, 2002; Federmeier & Kutas, 1999; Van Berkum, Brown, Zwitserlood, Kooijman, & Hagoort, 2005; Wicha, Moreno, & Kutas, 2003). Two questions that immediately arise are the following: (1) Which elements in a sentence can be used to generate expectancies? and (2) What connection exists, if any, among expectancy generation, higher levels of understanding (e.g., event knowledge), and the extraction of meaning? In what follows, we will sketch a response to these questions, arguing that verbs are an important source of expectancy generation but that sentential nouns can be so as well, via the activation of generalized event knowledge. We tested this hypothesis with a set of priming experiments.

Expectancy Generation From Verbs and Nonverbs

In response to the first question, it is clear that verbs play a central role in sentence processing and, by logical extension, are likely to be powerful generators of expectancies. Nouns may stand alone, but verbs rarely do. As predicating functions, verbs exhibit regular and systematic restrictions on their complements. Although verbs as a category enter a child's language later than do nouns, they are associated with the first appearance of real grammar. From that point on, it is clear that verbs play the major role in organizing the event structure that underlies sentences (Centner, 1982; Tomasello, 1992).

Among other things, a verb imposes syntactic constraints on the phrases with which it co-occurs (its arguments), as well as semantic constraints, such as the thematic roles it assigns to those arguments. Experimental work has demonstrated that these restrictions influence comprehension (among numerous other findings, see those in Boland, Tanenhaus, Carlson, & Garnsey, 1989; Carlson & Tanenhaus, 1988; Ferreira & Clifton, 1986; Frazier, 1987; Frazier, Clifton, & Randall, 1983; Rayner, Carlson, & Frazier, 1983; for a review, see Tanenhaus & Trueswell, 1995). Clearly, there are a myriad of ways in which verbs lie at the heart of sentence processing. …

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