The proposed research examines how English readers and listeners use their knowledge of the semantic structure of their language to comprehend sentences and discourse. It builds on earlier research examining how they use syntactic structure, extending it to topics that have been investigated in the field of semantics. In particular, the research investigates how people are able to comprehend sentences with variables, which are an essential source of the expressive power of human languages. It studies three distinct aspects of the processing of variables: a) true vs. 'fake'variable binding ("Every man loves his wife" vs. "The men bought presents for their wives;" b) the processing of `world variables,'essentially implicatures that some state of affairs is not true in the actual world;and c) the determination of the domain over which a variable is quantified (e.g. does "The offices are mostly clean" refer to most offices or to degrees of cleanliness?). Each of these topics is the subject of intensive analysis within the field of formal semantics and is ready for experimental psycholinguistic study. The experiments that are proposed study these topics with a variety of techniques, ranging from simple tasks of judging the meaning or the naturalness of sentences and discourses to measures of eye movements during normal reading.

Public Health Relevance

The immediate goal of the research is to explore how normal adult readers and listeners compose the meaning of a sentence out of the meaning of its parts. This is a skill that is universal among intact humans, but that can be degraded or lost in cases of language disorder, most notably aphasia. A better understanding of aphasia must be based on a better understanding of the specific linguistic functions that are lost in aphasia, and it is hoped that such a better understanding will lead to better treatment - an important goal in an aging population with an increasing expected incidence of strokes leading to language impairments.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
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Language and Communication Study Section (LCOM)
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Miller, Brett
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University of Massachusetts Amherst
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Frazier, Lyn; Clifton Jr, Charles; Carlson, Katy et al. (2014) Standing alone with prosodic help. Lang Cogn Process 29:459-469
Dillon, Brian; Clifton Jr, Charles; Frazier, Lyn (2014) Pushed aside: Parentheticals, Memory and Processing. Lang Cogn Neurosci 29:483-498
Benatar, Ashley; Clifton Jr, Charles (2014) Newness, Givenness and Discourse Updating: Evidence from Eye Movements. J Mem Lang 71:
Clifton, Charles (2013) Situational context affects definiteness preferences: accommodation of presuppositions. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 39:487-501
Breen, Mara; Clifton Jr, Charles (2013) Stress matters revisited: a boundary change experiment. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) 66:1896-909
Clifton Jr, Charles; Frazier, Lyn (2012) Interpreting conjoined noun phrases and conjoined clauses: collective versus distributive preferences. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) 65:1760-76
Grant, Margaret; Clifton Jr, Charles; Frazier, Lyn (2012) The Role of Non-Actuality Implicatures in Processing Elided Constituents. J Mem Lang 66:326-343
Mohamed, Mohamed Taha; Clifton, Charles (2011) Processing temporary syntactic ambiguity: the effect of contextual bias. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove) 64:1797-820
Staub, Adrian; Grant, Margaret; Clifton, Charles et al. (2011) Still no phonological typicality effect on word reading time (and no good explanation of one, either): a rejoinder to Farmer, Monaghan, Misyak, and Christiansen. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 37:1326-8
Staub, Adrian; Grant, Margaret; Clifton Jr, Charles et al. (2009) Phonological typicality does not influence fixation durations in normal reading. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 35:806-14

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