LINGUIST List 14.2787

Wed Oct 15 2003

Diss: Syntax/Psycholing: Cowles: 'Processing...'

Editor for this issue: Takako Matsui <>


  1. h.w.cowles, Processing Information Structure

Message 1: Processing Information Structure

Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2003 07:50:14 +0000
From: h.w.cowles <>
Subject: Processing Information Structure

Institution: University of California, San Diego
Program: Cognitive Science and Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Heidi Wind Cowles 

Dissertation Title: Processing Information Structure: Evidence from
Comprehension and Production

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field: Syntax, Psycholinguistics, Neurolinguistics

Dissertation Director 1: Robert E. Kluender
Dissertation Director 2: Maria Polinsky

Dissertation Abstract: 

This dissertation examines the influence of information structure on
sentence comprehension and production using a multi-methodological

Chapter 1 provides a theoretical characterization of information
structure, including definitions of topic, focus, and contrastiveness,
and a hypothesis with three predictions for how information structure
should apply to sentence processing: (1) information status should
influence the cognitive states of discourse referents; (2) information
structure, if a separate level of representation, should influence
processing independent of syntax and semantics; (3) information status
should influence sentence production as well.

In Chapter 2, the first prediction is tested in a cross-modal priming
study of how topic and contrastive focus influence referent
accessibility during pronoun resolution. The results of two
experiments suggest that both topic and contrastive focus render
referents more accessible, and thus preferred as antecedents for

In Chapter 3, three ERP studies test the second prediction. The first
two studies examine how wh-question contexts affect expectations about
the identity of clefted focus constituents: violations of such
expectations elicit an N400-like response associated with semantic and
pragmatic aspects of processing. The third study investigates the
processing of identical sentences following discourse contexts that
create either an informational or a contrastive focus
interpretation. The results show that comprehenders process identical
sentences differently depending on focus status: an anterior
negativity was elicited at the beginning of the target sentence in the
contrastive condition as an index of holding a contrast set in working
memory, followed by a late positivity at the contrastive focus
position that cannot be interpreted as a failure of syntactic parsing.

Chapter 4 tests the third prediction by comparing the influence of
topic status and givenness on order of mention in sentence production
and word recall. Speakers produced previously given referents earlier
than new ones, with topics showing an additional early mention
advantage beyond givenness, but only in sentence contexts, while
givenness affected mention in both sentence production and word
recall. This suggests that while givenness exerts an effect via an
increase in accessibility, topic effects are more specific to sentence
production itself.
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