In Search of On-Line Locality Effects in Sentence Comprehension

Brian Bartek, Richard L. Lewis, Mason Smith, Shravan Vasishth

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Many comprehension theories assert that increasing the distance between elements participating in a linguistic relation (e.g., a verb and a noun phrase argument) increases the difficulty of establishing that relation during on-line comprehension. Such locality effects are expected to increase reading times and are thought to reveal properties and limitations of the short-term memory system that supports comprehension. Despite their theoretical importance and putative ubiquity, however, evidence for on-line locality effects is quite narrow linguistically and methodologically: It is restricted almost exclusively to self-paced reading of complex structures involving a particular class of syntactic relation. We present 4 experiments (2 self-paced reading and 2 eyetracking experiments) that demonstrate locality effects in the course of establishing subject–verb dependencies; locality effects are seen even in materials that can be read quickly and easily. These locality effects are observable in the earliest possible eye-movement measures and are of much shorter duration than previously reported effects. To account for the observed empirical patterns, we outline a processing model of the adaptive control of button pressing and eye movements. This model makes progress toward the goal of eliminating linking assumptions between memory constructs and empirical measures in favor of explicit theories of the coordinated control of motor responses and parsing.

Journal of Experimental Psychology:Learning, Memory, and Cognition; 2011, Vol. 37, No. 5, 1178–1198