Discourse cues can help unravel the garden-path, but the verb must lead the way

Besserman, A. & Kaiser, E.

University of Southern California

Garden-path sentences like 'While the man hunted the deer ran into the woods' cause processing difficulties: 'the deer' is initially parsed as an object and then needs to be re-analyzed as a subject (e.g. Ferreira/Henderson'91).

We investigated whether discourse cues related to subjecthood/objecthood modulate garden-pathing. Objects are often indefinite, new information; subjects are typically previously-mentioned, definite information (Comrie'88, Prince'92).

We conducted a self-paced reading study (n=48) with garden-path sentences where definiteness and givenness of ambiguous nouns ('the/a deer') were manipulated to make them 'object-like' (indefinite, new) or 'subject-like' (definite, given/previously-mentioned). Ambiguity was manipulated with commas ('While the man hunted (,) the deer...'). We used two verb types to investigate whether argument structure modulates the relevance of discourse cues: reflexive-absolute verbs (RATs, e.g. 'bathe') and optionally transitive verbs (OPTs, e.g. 'hunt'). Without objects, RATs ('Anna bathed.') are interpreted reflexively (bathed herself), but OPTs ('The man hunted.') involve unspecified objects. We hypothesize OPT processing involves discourse representations, whereas RAT processing is syntactically-governed/non-discourse-related.

Indeed, discourse cues affected processing of OPT sentences: Indefinites ('object-like') cause greater ambiguity-related slowdowns during re-analysis than definites ('subject-like'). There are no discourse-cue effects with RATs.

Our findings suggest access to discourse-level cues is modulated by verb argument structure.