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Structural priming among prepositional phrases: Evidence from eye movements

Abstract

This experiment was designed to determine whether prepositional phrases are treated as a single undifferentiated type, or whether the parser may recognize different subtypes. In the experiment, participants read temporarily ambiguous prime and target sentences that had either agent or instrument prepositional phrases in the syntactically disambiguating position. Agent and instrument primes both led to significant priming effects for agent targets. Agent primes led to a nonsignificant priming effect for instrument targets, and this priming effect was smaller than the effect that instrument primes had on instrument targets. This pattern can be explained if verb argument structure information is used in structural decisions, and if agent but not instrument roles are obligatory for the class of verbs tested here. The data suggest that readers are likely to activate an implicit agent when they read prime sentences that explicitly mention an instrument, but are not likely to activate an instrument when they read prime sentences that explicitly mention an agent. If the structural representations that incorporate activated arguments persist, or are reactivated more quickly following an appropriate prime sentence, this could lead to facilitated processing of sentences that have the same structural configuration.

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Correspondence to Matthew J. Traxler.

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This project was supported by awards from the National Science Foundation Linguistics Program (0446618) and by the National Institutes of Health, Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD Grant 1R01HD048914-01A2).

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Traxler, M.J. Structural priming among prepositional phrases: Evidence from eye movements. Memory & Cognition 36, 659–674 (2008). https://doi.org/10.3758/MC.36.3.659

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Keywords

  • Agent Target
  • Argument Structure
  • Target Sentence
  • Target Pair
  • Prepositional Phrase