[PS-2.29] Experience with phrases stitches their words together in free recall

Jacobs, C. & Dell, G.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Speakers produce frequent phrases like "alcoholic beverages" more fluently and with fewer errors than less frequent phrases like "psychic nephew", suggesting that long-term memory representations of compositional phrases support fluent production. This may happen because phrases are retrieved as atomic units, but another possibility is that the words within a phrase may mutually cue each other.

Word frequency often does not influence memory for individual words in a recall task. If phrases are represented as units like words are, then phrase frequency should not influence phrase recall. If, however, phrase frequency represents the strength of a link between two words, then participants should be more likely to fail to retrieve the whole phrase when recalling lower frequency phrases.

In three experiments, participants recalled two different sets of adjective-noun phrases and individual words from phrases. Lower frequency phrases like "psychic nephew" were more likely than high frequency phrases to be recalled as only single words (i.e. "psychic" or "nephew" but not both). The role of frequency in phrase completion suggests that words within a phrase can cue each other and that speakers do not necessarily retrieve atomic phrase representations in production.