Predicting and Priming Thematic Roles: Flexible Use of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues During Relative Clause Comprehension

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Relative-clause sentences (RCs) have been a key test case for psycholinguistic models of comprehension. While object-relative clauses (e.g., ORCs: “The bear that the horse . . .”) are distinguished from subject-relative clauses (SRCs) after the second noun phrase (NP2; e.g., SRCs: “The bear that pushed . . .”), role assignments are often delayed until the embedded verb (e.g., “. . . pushed ate the sandwich”). This contrasts with overwhelming evidence of incremental role assignment in other garden-path sentences. The current study investigates how contextual factors modulate reliance on verbal and nonverbal cues. Using a visual-world paradigm, participants saw preceding discourse contexts that highlighted relevant roles within events (e.g., pusher, pushee). Nevertheless, role assignment for ORCs remained delayed until the embedded verb (Experiment 1). However, role assignment for ORCs occurred before the embedded verb when additional linguistic input was provided by an adverb (Experiment 2). Finally, when the likelihood of encountering RCs increased within the experimental context, role immediate assignment for ORCs was observed after NP2 (Experiment 3). Together, these findings suggest that real-time role assignment often prefers verbal cues, but can also flexibly adapt to the statistical properties of the local context.

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