The Sentence-Composition Effect: Processing of Complex Sentences Depends on the Configuration of Common Noun Phrases Versus Unusual Noun Phrases

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In 2 experiments, the authors used an eye tracking while reading methodology to examine how different configurations of common noun phrases versus unusual noun phrases (NPs) influenced the difference in processing difficulty between sentences containing object- and subject-extracted relative clauses. Results showed that processing difficulty was reduced when the head NP was unusual relative to the embedded NP, as manipulated by lexical frequency. When both NPs were common or both were unusual, results showed strong effects of both commonness and sentence structure, but no interaction. In contrast, when 1 NP was common and the other was unusual, results showed the critical interaction. These results provide evidence for a sentence-composition effect analogous to the list-composition effect that has been well documented in memory research, in which the pattern of recall for common versus unusual items is different, depending on whether items are studied in a pure or mixed list context. This work represents an important step in integrating the list-memory and sentence-processing literatures and provides additional support for the usefulness of studying complex sentence processing from the perspective of memory-based models.

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