While much of communicative meaning is based on the combination of word meanings as according to syntactic rules (semantics), other essential facets of communicative meaning are added by context-sensitive, inferential processes (pragmatics). The long term objective of this project is to enhance the theoretical characterization of the relationship between these linguistic representations and to provide a better understanding for how language and communication occur in both normal and special populations. This proposal explores how pragmatic inferences are generated during real-time processing and focuses on the interaction of these interpretations with the linguistic properties of quantified expressions. This project lays out a series of experiments designed to address three specific aims. First, it examines the time-course for generating pragmatic inferences during language comprehension. Experiment 1 compares the availability of semantically-specified versus pragmatically-inferred interpretations and identifies whether inferences are preceded by a period of semantic analysis. Second, this proposal examines the effects of discourse structure on pragmatic inferencing. Experiment 2 investigates whether prior evidence of facilitation in interpretation reflects inferences generated over prominent expressions or whether it reflects factors related to surface level congruency. Finally, this proposal examines the degree to which these inferences can be canceled by subsequent discourse. Experiment 3 compares the violation of pragmatic inferences with the processing of semantically incoherent expressions and examines whether the two phenomena incur similar processing costs. The proposed experiments adopt converging techniques including the eye-tracking during reading paradigm and event-related potentials to isolate language processing at the behavioral and neural level. These procedures yield critical information concerning the quantitative patterns (when do pragmatic inferences emerge?) and qualitative patterns (how do they differ from other processes?) within the semantics-pragmatics interface.

Public Health Relevance

This research has potential applications in the understanding of disabilities linked to language and communicative deficits like autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and schizophrenia. Advancements in the characterization of the semantics-pragmatics interface will provide an important step towards developing a neurocognitive phenotype of these impairments.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-F12A-J (20))
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Mccardle, Peggy D
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University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Schools of Arts and Sciences
Chapel Hill
United States
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Huang, Yi Ting; Snedeker, Jesse (2018) Some inferences still take time: Prosody, predictability, and the speed of scalar implicatures. Cogn Psychol 102:105-126
Huang, Yi Ting; Hopfinger, Joseph; Gordon, Peter C (2014) Distinguishing lexical- versus discourse-level processing using event-related potentials. Mem Cognit 42:275-91
Huang, Yi Ting; Zheng, Xiaobei; Meng, Xiangzhi et al. (2013) Children's assignment of grammatical roles in the online processing of Mandarin passive sentences. J Mem Lang 69:
Huang, Yi Ting; Gordon, Peter C (2011) Distinguishing the time course of lexical and discourse processes through context, coreference, and quantified expressions. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 37:966-78