The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling Lunch 5/19 - Shayne Sloggett

Speaker: Shayne Sloggett (UMASS)
Title: “Do comprehenders violate Binding Theory? Depends on your point of view”
Date/Time: Thursday, May 19/12:30pm-1:50pm
Location: 32-D461

In the course of sentence comprehension, comprehenders will, inevitably, need to interpret anaphoric elements (e.g. pronouns, reflexives, ellipsis). A good deal of work in psycholinguistics has been aimed understanding how such elements are interpreted in real-time, investigating the role played by grammatical constraints and their interaction with general memory mechanisms. For pronouns and reflexives, it has been claimed that comprehenders use Binding Theory (Chomsky 1986) to tightly restrict the search for an antecedent in early stages of comprehension (Chow, Lewis, & Phillips, 2014; Dillon, Mishler, Sloggett, & Phillips, 2013; Nicol & Swinney, 1989; Sturt, 2003). However, recent findings challenge this view, demonstrating that reflexive comprehension sometimes accesses antecedents solely on the basis of their match with the reflexive’s morphosyntactic features (Chen, Jaeger, & Vasishth, 2012; Patil, Lewis, & Vasishth, 2016; Parker, 2014). In this talk, I will explore the source of this ‘grammatical fallibility’ in the real-time application of Binding Theory: do apparent violations of Principle A in comprehension reflect processing errors in antecedent selection, or are they instead the result of alternative grammatical constraints on reflexive interpretation? I will present the results of two eye-tracking while reading studies which demonstrate that comprehenders do not simply “make mistakes” in finding reflexive antecedents, but rather attend to non-Principle A antecedents when a discourse-oriented, logophoric interpretation of the reflexive is available. Curiously, it is not clear that such interpretations are fully licensed in English, suggesting that comprehenders make use of “sub-grammatical” knowledge of possible linguistic structures in other languages. These findings thus suggest a rather tight link between grammatical knowledge and linguistic processing, albeit, one interestingly complicated by “sub-grammatical” information. Finally, these findings might be extended to improve our understanding of Binding Theory by providing potential evidence against predicate-based theories of binding (Pollard & Sag 1992; Reinhart & Reuland 1993).