Sentence and Discourse Processing


What is syntax?

  • Syntax is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well formed sentences in English - the relationships between concepts is encoded by syntax.
  • Specific syntactic (grammatical) rules for every language.
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What is surface vs deep structure?

  • The surface structure (word order), is not sufficient enough for understanding it. 
  • You must generate the deep structure (i.e. the actual relationships between the words) from the surface structure.
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What are syntactic ambiguities?

  • Syntactic ambiguities occur when multiple deep structures fit with the surface structure. 
  • Global: Ambiguity is never resolved e.g. they are cooking apples / crash blossoms
  • Temporary: Ambiguity is resolved further in the sentence.

Garden Path Sentences

  • Frazier and Rayner (1982): Temporarily ambiguous - readers tend to:
  • 1) Boggle and fixate for a long time
  • 2) Regress back to earlier in time
  • 3) Read to end, and then start all over again.
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How are sentences parsed?

Occurs when sentences have multiple interpretations, formed of two processes:

  • Serial processing hypothesis: Parser only considers one interpretation, abandons it only when it fails
  • Parallel processing hypothesis: Parser considers all possible interpretations at the same time, selects one only once the sentence is read completely.


  • There is no evidence that ambiguity is detected (though disambiguation is) 
  • Eye movements and reading time are only affected once readers reach the disambiguating region.
  • Evidence for the serial processing theory.
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What is semantics?

Semantics are the meanings of words. Semantic processing takes relationships between words (i.e. syntax or deep structure) into account. Goal is to construct mental representations (propositions) from sentences.

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What are pragmatics/ s.p.model?

Pragmatics relates to the intended rather than the literal. 

  • Figurative language - language not meant to be taken literally. 
  • Metaphor - A word or phrase used figuratively to mean something it resembles.

Standard Pragmatic Model

Grice (1975) proposed the involvement of three stages:

  • 1) The literal meaning is accessed.
  • 2) The reader or listener decides whether the literal meaning makes sense in the context in which it is read or heard.
  • 3) If it doesn't, then the reader/listener searches for a non-literal meaning of the sentence that does make sense in context.
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