The effect of context on the processing of type-shifting verbs

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Recent research in lexical semantics has suggested that verbs such as begin and enjoy semantically select for a complement that denotes an activity or an event. When no such activity or event is specified in the form of a progressive or infinitival complement, as in John began (to read/reading) the book, the verb is said to “coerce” the NP direct object to shift its role to encompass the activity that begin requires as complement (e.g., writing, reading). Empirical support for this view has been provided by McElree, Traxler, Pickering, Seely, & Jackendoff (2001). In the present study, however, in two self-paced reading experiments, type-shifting effects (taken to be longer reading times engendered by the computation of the coercion process) were not obtained with sentences in isolation (Experiment 1) or with sentences embedded in contexts that specified the nature of the activity performed over the complement NP (Experiment 2). It is argued that type-shifting verbs are similar to non-preferred verbs for given contexts and that type-shifting operations are pragmatic inferences computed over underspecified semantic representations.

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