Explicit and Implicit Prosody in Sentence Processing

Volume 46 of the series Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics pp 241-261


The Interplay of Visual and Prosodic Information in the Attachment Preferences of Semantically Shallow Relative Clauses

  • Eva M. FernándezAffiliated withQueens College, City University of New YorkGraduate Center, City University of New York Email author 
  • , Irina A. SekerinaAffiliated withCollege of Staten Island, City University of New YorkGraduate Center, City University of New York

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Many studies have investigated the attachment of relative clauses (RCs) modifying complex noun phrases (NPs). Cross-language differences in how ambiguous RCs are interpreted have been attributed to a number of factors, among which lexical semantics and prosody seem to play a special role. We report data from an experiment conducted in English using semantically shallow sentences that describe geometric shapes. The spoken sentences contained the ambiguity of interest and were paired with visual displays that contained two scenes. In the disambiguating conditions, only one of the scenes was compatible with the attachment of the RC as high or low. In the ambiguous condition, either scene could be chosen. Sentences were presented to participants with one of two prosodic contours: compatible with high attachment (phrasal break before the RC) or compatible with low attachment (phrasal break after the head noun in the complex NP). Participants’ interpretation preferences were assessed via their choice of the scene which disambiguated the interpretation of the RC; we additionally recorded participants’ eye movements as they performed the task. We discuss the interplay of prosodic and visual disambiguation in determining the attachment preferences of semantically shallow RCs.


Relative clause attachment ambiguity Visual disambiguation Prosodic disambiguation Eye tracking English