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The source ambiguity problem: Distinguishing the effects of grammar and processing on acceptability judgments

Hofmeister, Philip and Jaeger, T Florian and Arnon, Inbal and Sag, Ivan A and Snider, Neal (2013) 'The source ambiguity problem: Distinguishing the effects of grammar and processing on acceptability judgments.' Language and Cognitive Processes, 28 (1-2). pp. 48-87. ISSN 0169-0965


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Judgments of linguistic unacceptability may theoretically arise from either grammatical deviance or significant processing difficulty. Acceptability data are thus naturally ambiguous in theories that explicitly distinguish formal and functional constraints. Here, we consider this source ambiguity problem in the context of Superiority effects: the dispreference for ordering a wh-phrase in front of a syntactically “superior” wh-phrase in multiple wh-questions, e.g., What did who buy? More specifically, we consider the acceptability contrast between such examples and so-called D-linked examples, e.g., Which toys did which parents buy? Evidence from acceptability and self-paced reading experiments demonstrates that (i) judgments and processing times for Superiority violations vary in parallel, as determined by the kind of wh-phrases they contain, (ii) judgments increase with exposure, while processing times decrease, (iii) reading times are highly predictive of acceptability judgments for the same items, and (iv) the effects of the complexity of the wh-phrases combine in both acceptability judgments and reading times. This evidence supports the conclusion that D-linking effects are likely reducible to independently motivated cognitive mechanisms whose effects emerge in a wide range of sentence contexts. This in turn suggests that Superiority effects, in general, may owe their character to differential processing difficulty.

Item Type: Article
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Divisions: Faculty of Social Sciences > Language and Linguistics, Department of
SWORD Depositor: Elements
Depositing User: Elements
Date Deposited: 13 Nov 2012 12:10
Last Modified: 06 Jan 2022 14:36

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