Short-term forgetting in sentence comprehension: Crosslinguistic evidence from head-final structures

Shravan Vasishth, Katja Suckow, Richard L Lewis, Sabine Kern

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Seven experiments using self-paced reading and eyetracking suggest that omitting the middle verb in a double centre embedding leads to easier processing in English but leads to greater difficulty in German. One commonly accepted explanation for the English pattern, based on data from offline acceptability ratings and due to Gibson and Thomas (1999), is that working-memory overload leads the comprehender to forget the prediction of the upcoming verb phrase (VP), which reduces working-memory load. We show that this VP-forgetting hypothesis does an excellent job of explaining the English data, but cannot account for the German results. We argue that the English and German results can be explained by the parser’s adaptation to the grammatical properties of the languages; in contrast to English, German subordinate clauses always have the verb in clause-final position, and this property of German may lead the German parser to maintain predictions of upcoming VPs more robustly compared to English. The evidence thus argues against language-independent forgetting effects in online sentence processing; working-memory constraints can be conditioned by countervailing influences deriving from grammatical properties of the language under study