Previous work has shown that the difficulty associated with processing complex semantic expressions is reduced when the critical constituents appear in separate clauses as opposed to when they appear together in the same clause. We investigated this effect further, focusing in particular on complement coercion, in which an event-selecting verb (e.g., began) combines with a complement that represents an entity (e.g., began the memo). Experiment 1 compared reading times for coercion versus control expressions when the critical verb and complement appeared together in a subject-extracted relative clause (SRC) (e.g., The secretary that began/wrote the memo) compared to when they appeared together in a simple sentence. Readers spent more time processing coercion expressions than control expressions, replicating the typical coercion cost. In addition, readers spent less time processing the verb and complement in SRCs than in simple sentences; however, the magnitude of the coercion cost did not depend on sentence structure. In contrast, Experiment 2 showed that the coercion cost was reduced when the complement appeared as the head of an object-extracted relative clause (ORC) (e.g., The memo that the secretary began/wrote) compared to when the constituents appeared together in an SRC. Consistent with the eye-tracking results of Experiment 2, a corpus analysis showed that expressions requiring complement coercion are more frequent when the constituents are separated by the clause boundary of an ORC compared to when they are embedded together within an SRC. The results provide important information about the types of structural configurations that contribute to reduced difficulty with complex semantic expressions, as well as how these processing patterns are reflected in naturally occurring language.

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Copyright © 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Article first published online: May 2016.

DOI: 10.1080/23273798.2016.1183798

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Full citation:

Lowder, Matthew Warren, and Peter C. Gordon. "Eye-Tracking and Corpus-Based Analyses of Syntax-Semantics Interactions in Complement Coercion." Language, Cognition and Neuroscience 31, no. 7 (May 19, 2016): 921-939.