What Eye Movements Can and Cannot Tell Us About Wh-Movement and Scrambling

  • Irina A. SekerinaEmail author
  • Anna K. Laurinavichyute
  • Olga Dragoy
Part of the Studies in Theoretical Psycholinguistics book series (SITP, volume 48)


Generative grammar postulates a filler-gap dependency in Wh-questions. Visual World Paradigm (VWP) studies of this dependency in English have found an increase in fixations to the filler object during and after the verb which was interpreted as filler reactivation (Trace Reactivation Hypothesis) at the gap and explained by the Active Filler Hypothesis. However, it is possible that such fixations are compatible not only with filler-gap processing, but also with a goal-oriented strategy, i.e., the pragmatic computation of an answer to the question. To disentangle these two possible explanations, we conducted two VWP experiments that investigated comprehension of simple Russian Wh-questions in which the type of question (subject vs. object) was crossed with scrambling (object-verb vs. verb-subject). For object scrambling, there was no evidence of reactivation of the scrambled filler; for subject scrambling, there was a brief consideration of the scrambled filler, but not at the gap site. Instead, the referent that was the answer to the question was fixated. For object Wh-questions, the eye-movement pattern was inconclusive, as it was consistent with both filler-gap and goal-oriented processing. We suggest that the latter strategy of looking for an answer in the visual context may account for eye-movements in all types of Wh-movement: when participants answer a question, they prioritize computing the answer (and visually verifying it) over computing filler-gap dependencies.



We would like to thank Anastasia Ulicheva, Maria Ivanova, and Svetlana Kuptsova for their help with planning and conducting the experiment, and Jill Jegerski for providing very useful comments on the chapter. We are especially thankful to our colleagues Janet Dean Fodor, Katy Carlson, and Michael Walsh Dickey whose very thoughtful comments have substantially improved both the content and style of this chapter. The study has been funded by several PSC-CUNY grants to Irina A. Sekerina and by the Center for Language and Brain NRU Higher School of Economics, RF Government grant, ag. No. 14.641.31.0004, to Anna Laurinavichyute and Olga Dragoy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Irina A. Sekerina
    • 1
    Email author
  • Anna K. Laurinavichyute
    • 2
    • 3
  • Olga Dragoy
    • 2
  1. 1.The College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNYNew York CityUSA
  2. 2.National Research University Higher School of EconomicsMoscowRussian Federation
  3. 3.University of PotsdamPotsdamGermany

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