Processing syntactically ambiguous sentences: Evidence from semantic priming

Janet L. Nicol, Martin J. Pickering

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


In this paper, we report the results of a study which investigates the processing of syntactically ambiguous sentences. We examined the processing of sentences in which an embedded clause is interpretable as either a complement clause or as a relative clause, as in, for example, "The receptionist informed the doctor that the journalist had phoned about the events." The embedded clause in such sentences is typically analyzed as a complement to the verb informed, rather than as a relative clause modifying the doctor. A number of models parsing predict this is the only analysis ever considered, while others predict that both interpretations are computed in parallel. Using a cross-model semantic priming technique, we probed for activation of doctor just after the embedded verb. Since only the relative clause analysis contains a connection between the doctor and the embedded verb, we expected reactivation of doctor at that point only if the relative clause analysis were a viable option. Our results suggest that this is the case: Compared to priming in an ambiguous control sentence, a significant reactivation effect was obtained. These results are argued to support a model of parsing in which attachment of a clause may be delayed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)207-237
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of psycholinguistic research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Psychology(all)


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