Experiments on the degree of incrementality in human sentence processing

The goal of the project is to run reading experiments that investigate the degree of connectedness in human sentence processing. Human language comprehension has been argued to be incremental (i.e. language is interpreted on a word-by-word basis). The strongest version of the incrementality hypothesis is when full connectedness is also assumed. This means that people incorporate each word into a single, totally connected syntactic structure, before any following words. Interpretation of partial sentences is then achieved through the interpretation of these single syntactic structures; as long as different bits of sentences are not connected, the relations between them can't be determined. Methods for obtaining incremental interpretations are relevant for NLP applications such as speech recognition and speech-to-speech translation. The main interest in this project is to determine the degree of connectivity in the human parser. For example, recent results from psycholinguistics experiments (Lombardo & Sturt, 2005, see Example 1) indicate that human language comprehension of coordinated structures is both incremental and eager. This experiment works on gender mismatch: reading times are longer in sentence (b) at the point when the untypical gender (herself for the pilot) is encountered. This finding means that parts of the second conjunct (put herself) are already connected with syntactic structure outside the coordinated phrase before the end of the second conjunct (after "in a very awkward situation") is reached.

1. (a) The pilot embarrassed John and put himself in a very awkward situation.

(b) The pilot embarrassed John and put herself in a very awkward situation.

Your task would be to 1) identify syntactic structures for which connectedness can be determined experimentally and 2) design an experiment that provides evidence for or against connectedness in this particular structure. The 3rd step of your project will be to run the experiments. To do this, you will learn how to conduct studies which deliver accurate online reading time measures to investigate human sentence processing. You will receive full training on how to design, run, and evaluate eye-tracking and self-paced reading experiments.


- Sturt, P. and Lombardo, V. (2005). Processing coordinate structures: Incrementality and connectedness. Cognitive Science, 29:291-305.

- Mazzei, Lombardo, Sturt (2007). Dynamic TAG and Lexical Dependencies. In Research on Language and Computation, Springer 5 (3): 309-332, 2007.

- Vera Demberg (2010), PhD Thesis, see under publications.

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