Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Hans Wilke (University of Edinburgh)

Title: Given-before-new, and then what? Information structure and sentence structure influence processing and expectations

Abstract: Comprehenders have expectations about how information will be presented in a sentence and make predictions about what will be mentioned next. In a series of experiments, we test how information-structural features and sentence structure influence both.

There is extensive evidence that comprehenders prefer given information to precede new information in a sentence. This principle has primarily been tested by considering information-structural features encoded in syntax, e.g., given information expressed in definite NPs. We carried out a self-paced reading experiment to revisit the given-before-new principle and disentangle new-/givenness from syntactic features. Additionally, we consider the effects of clause ordering and the mapping between a clause’s information status (given/new) and its type (matrix/subordinate). We find that given-before-new sentences are processed faster, and that this effect is even stronger when the given information is hosted by a subordinate clause.

Following this, I will present a selection of experiments that show how the information-structural principle of at-issueness influences expectations about what will be mentioned next. At-issueness concerns itself with what the main point of an utterance is and consequently, what is felicitously available to be picked up in subsequent discourse. For multi-clause sentences, clause type (matrix /subordinate) and clause position (sentence-early/sentence-final) have been posited to contribute to at-issue status. We measured reading times when a pronoun with two possible antecedents is disambiguated to a referent in either a matrix clause or a subordinate clause, in sentence-early or sentence-final position. We find that clause position impacts reading times, but that the effect of clause type depends on the type of subordinate clause comprehenders encounter.


Seminars are organised by the meaning and grammar research group.

Meaning and grammar research group

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Nov 01 2022 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2022-11-01: Given-before-new, and then what? Information structure and sentence structure influence processing and expectations

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