Another word on parsing relative
clauses
Eyetracking evidence from Spanish and English
Manuel Carreiras & Charles Clifton, Jr.
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Preference for the simplest interpretation

Minimal attachment strategy (Frazier, 1979, 1987)
• Not postulating any unnecessary nodes

Late closure
• Attach new items into clause/phrase currently processing

Are these strategies universal?

Cuetos & Mitchell (1988) – late closure fails to apply in
Spanish to parsing of RCs preceded by complex NPs
1. Someone shot the female servant of the actress who was on
the balcony
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Preference for the simplest interpretation

Minimal attachment strategy (Frazier, 1979, 1987)
• Not postulating any unnecessary nodes

Late closure
• Attach new items into clause/phrase currently processing

Are these strategies universal?

Cuetos & Mitchell (1988) – late closure fails to apply in
Spanish to parsing of RCs preceded by complex NPs
1. Someone shot the female servant of the actress who was on
the balcony
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Preference for the simplest interpretation

Minimal attachment strategy (Frazier, 1979, 1987)
• Not postulating any unnecessary nodes

Late closure
• Attach new items into clause/phrase currently processing

Are these strategies universal?

Cuetos & Mitchell (1988) – late closure fails to apply in
Spanish to parsing of RCs preceded by complex NPs
1. Someone shot the female servant of the actress who was on
the balcony
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Preference for the simplest interpretation

Minimal attachment strategy (Frazier, 1979, 1987)
• Not postulating any unnecessary nodes

Late closure
• Attach new items into clause/phrase currently processing

Are these strategies universal?

Cuetos & Mitchell (1988) – late closure fails to apply in
Spanish to parsing of RCs preceded by complex NPs
1. Someone shot the female servant of the actress who was on
the balcony
2. Alguien disparó contra la criada de la actriz que estaba en el
balcón
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Preference for the simplest interpretation

Minimal attachment strategy (Frazier, 1979, 1987)
• Not postulating any unnecessary nodes

Late closure
• Attach new items into clause/phrase currently processing

Are these strategies universal?

Cuetos & Mitchell (1988) – late closure fails to apply in
Spanish to parsing of RCs preceded by complex NPs
1. Someone shot the female servant of the actress who was on
the balcony
2. Alguien disparó contra la criada de la actriz que estaba en el
balcón
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Preference for the simplest interpretation

Minimal attachment strategy (Frazier, 1979, 1987)
• Not postulating any unnecessary nodes

Late closure
• Attach new items into clause/phrase currently processing

Are these strategies universal?

Cuetos & Mitchell (1988) – late closure fails to apply in
Spanish to parsing of RCs preceded by complex NPs
1. Someone shot the female servant of the actress who was on
the balcony
2. Alguien disparó contra la criada de la actriz que estaba en el
balcón
Universal Parsing Strategies?

Differences across other languages?

In Spanish, French, German, and Dutch, the head of the
complex NP (N1) is preferred as the subject of the RC
• See Carreiras & Clifton (1999), p. 827 for complete list

Italian readers initially prefer N2 as the agent
• DeVincenzi & Job, 1993, 1995

As other studies have shown, English readers either prefer
N2 as the agent of the RC or show no preference
• Carreiras & Clifton, 1993; Henstra, 1996
Universal Parsing Strategies?

An experimental artifact?

Gilboy & Sopena (1996) - Segmentation
• Obtained preference for high attachment of N1 to RC only
with large segmentation
• La policía arrestó a la hermana del criado/que dio a luz
recientemente a dos gemelos
• The police arrested the sister of the handyman/who recently
gave birth to twins
• No effects were found for small segmentation (splitting RC
into two displays)
• La policía arrestó/a la hermana/del criado/que dio a luz
recientemente a dos gemelos
• The police arrested/the sister/of the handyman/who recently
gave birth to twins
• Conclusion: N1 preferences only arise when a particular
segmentation (large) allows for characteristics of prosodic
patterns to appear
Purpose

Two-fold:
1.
2.


Whether N1 preference in Spanish is a byproduct of
segmentation or an underlying property of the language
Whether native English and native Spanish readers resolve
ambiguity of attachment of RCs preceded by NPs in
different ways for the same sentences
Examined performances for ambiguous structures of the
type: N1 of N2 RC
Three eye-movement studies:
1.
2.
Experiments 1&2: conducted in Spanish
Experiment 3: conducted in English
Experiment 1

Subjects


44 undergraduate students
Apparatus


Sentences were presented in lowercase letters on a
monitor which displayed up to 80 characters per line
Eye movements were monitored by a Dual Purkinje
Eyetracker
Experiment 1

Design


16 sentences (English/Spanish) which contained a
complex NP (N1 de N2) followed by an RC intermixed
with 144 other filler sentences
RC attachment was disambiguated by gender information
Experiment 1

Results (First-Pass Times)

No significant effects for:
1. First-pass times at CR
• Those disambiguated toward high attachment were numerically
faster
2. Masculine and feminine hosts
3. Interaction between type of host and type of disambiguation
Experiment 1

Results (Total time)



Ss read CRs more rapidly when disambiguating toward
high attachment (N1)
Sentences requiring feminine hosts for disambiguation
were read faster than those with masculine hosts
Conclusion: high attachment preferences are REAL
Experiment 2

Purpose

High attachment was numerically present only when
disambiguating part of the RC required a masculine
antecedent
• May be that more masculine than feminine RCs contained
disambiguating morphology

Wanted to examine different sentences, all of which were
disambiguated morphologically by gender
Experiment 2

Results (First-pass)

No significant effects for:
• Type of disambiguation closure
• Type of host
• Interaction between disambiguation and host

Results (Total time)


Regions disambiguating toward high attachment (N1) were
read faster than those toward low attachment (N2)
Conclusion: effect not restricted to a particular gender
Experiment 3

Purpose


Determine whether English readers have a bias to
interpret an RC as modifying the most recent noun (N2)
Method


Subjects: 36 undergraduate students
Same apparatus and design as Experiment 1
Experiment 3

Results (First-Pass)



Ss read the CR faster when disambiguated toward low
attachment (N2)
No significant effects for type of host or interaction
Results (Total Time)

Low attachment disambiguations (N2) were read faster
than high attachment ones (N1)
Conclusions


Spanish readers have a modest preference for
interpreting an RC as modifying NP1 and is not a
consequence of segmentation
American English readers show a preference for low
attachment of an RC to N2, although this result has not
always been found
Implications

Why do the 2 languages differ?
1.
Spanish does not violate closure (Cuetos & Mitchell, 1988)
 Low attachment is an expression of a universal processing
principle, such as late closure, which is overridden by
certain constructions of other languages
2.
Tuning hypothesis (Mitchell & Cuetos, 1991)
 Initial resolution of structural ambiguities is determined by
the frequency with which alternative disambiguations are
encountered
3.
Predicate-proximity/Recency (Gibson, et al., 1996)
 Initial preferences are guided by weights of parameters, that
may differ among languages:
 Predicate proximity (attach to head of predicate)
 Recency (attach to most recent site)
Implications

Why do the 2 languages differ?
1.
Existence of the Saxon genitive (‘s)
 Limits late closure to primary phrases (e.g. the colonel’s
daughter who was on the porch)
 If a speaker wanted to express high attachment, he or she
would use the ‘s form
2.
Pronoun interpretation (Hemforth, Konieczny, & Scheepers)
 RCs are associate in languages such as German by default with
the most salient available host (generally N1, the head of the
complex NP and argument of main predicate)
 In English, the word that is often used to introduce RCs,
causing RCs to be treated less like pronouns and more like
complement phrases (obeying late closure)
Implications

Why do the 2 languages differ?
1.
Heavy RCs
 RCs are generally heavy, and prefer a relatively large host
phrase
 High attachment makes the N1 of N2 phrase the host (closer in
size to typical RC than just N2 alone)
 In English, because the word that is often phonologically
reduced, it is absorbed into the preceding prosodic phrase
 Thus, N2 is relatively heavier and the RC is correspondingly less
heavy, encouraging their attachment
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Another word on parsing relative clauses Eyetracking