[PS-3.88] Typography and information structure: do italics facilitate the processing of contrastive focus?

Norton, C. , Davies, C. & Nelson, D.

The University of Leeds

In spoken English, prosody can signal information structure: pitch accents mark focus on words conveying new or contrastive information (Zimmermann 2007; Bolinger 1961). Typographic emphasis (TE), typically in the form of italics, is sometimes used as a written equivalent (Saldanha 2011; McAteer 1992). Whilst prosodic emphasis of focus facilitates processing (Weber, Braun & Crocker 2006), little is known about whether TE has similar effects.

In a pilot study, 10 participants read dialogues featuring corrective contrastive focus, e.g.:

"A: Dan came over. He brought bananas.

B: He brought oranges."

TE of the target word was manipulated between subjects, i.e. half saw 'oranges' italicised. Eye movements were recorded to investigate the hypothesis that non-italic target words would initially be interpreted as lacking contrastive focus, prompting longer early fixations on target words and regressions to preceding material to resolve the ambiguous information structure.

No significant differences were found for regressive fixations. Preliminary results show italicisation increasing rather than decreasing initial dwell time (x2(1)=4.41, p=.03). This suggests, contrary to predictions, that TE may not function as an analogue of pitch accent. Theoretical implications (including other possible effects of TE, e.g. Fraundorf, Benjamin & Watson 2013) will be discussed alongside data from the full sample.