[PS-3.11] Coercing events or inserting structure? Eye-tracking evidence for a distinction between semantic and syntactic enrichment

Husband, E. M. 1 & Politzer-Ahles, S. 1, 2

1 University of Oxford
2 New York University Abu Dhabi

Comprehension sometimes involves inferring implicit activities, e.g., 'The reporter started [to write] the article' or 'The reporter needed [to write] the article'. Linguistic theory suggests that aspectual complement coercion (as in 'started the article') triggers semantic enrichment via type-shifting, whereas intensional transitivity (as in 'needed the article') triggers the insertion of covert syntactic structure (Pylkkänen, 2008). We adapted the paradigm of Traxler and colleagues (2002), used to study the comprehension of semantic enrichment, to test whether semantic and syntactic enrichment involve different cognitive processes. We recorded eye movements from 42 native English speakers as they read sentences factorially crossing verb type (aspectual, intensional, and neutral) with object type (entity noun or event noun), as in 'The young boy started/wanted/saw a puzzle/fight?'. Replicating studies on complement coercion, we found online costs for semantic enrichment, with entity nouns triggering longer first-pass reading times after aspectual verbs than after neutral verbs, and no concomitant difference on event nouns. Intensional verbs, however, yielded no such effects (although a qualitatively different pattern emerged in later reading measures). The results suggest that enrichment is not a monolithic process and that online comprehension is sensitive to subtle linguistic differences such as that between syntactic and semantic enrichment.