Processing the in the parafovea: Are articles skipped automatically?

Bernhard Angele, Keith Rayner

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One of the words that readers of English skip most often is the definite article the. Most accounts of reading assume that in order for a reader to skip a word, it must have received some lexical processing. The definite article is skipped so regularly, however, that the oculomotor system might have learned to skip the letter string t-h-e automatically. We tested whether skipping of articles in English is sensitive to context information or whether it is truly automatic in the sense that any occurrence of the letter string the will trigger a skip. This was done using the gaze-contingent boundary paradigm (Rayner, 1975) to provide readers with false parafoveal previews of the article the. All experimental sentences contained a short target verb, the preview of which could be correct (that is, identical to the actual subsequent word in the sentence, e.g. ace), a nonword (tda), or an infelicitous article preview (the). Our results indicated that readers tended to skip the infelicitous the previews frequently, suggesting that, in many cases, they seem to be unable to detect the syntactic anomaly in the preview and base their skipping decision solely on the orthographic properties of the article. However, there was some evidence that readers sometimes detected the anomaly, as they also showed increased skipping of the pre- target word in the the preview condition.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition