LINGUIST List 15.1218

Fri Apr 16 2004

Diss: Psycholing: O'Bryan: 'Event Structure...'

Editor for this issue: Takako Matsui <>


  1. erin74, Event Structure in Language Comprehension

Message 1: Event Structure in Language Comprehension

Date: Thu, 15 Apr 2004 17:52:05 -0400 (EDT)
From: erin74 <>
Subject: Event Structure in Language Comprehension

Institution: University of Arizona
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Erin L. O'Bryan

Dissertation Title: Event Structure in Language Comprehension

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field: Psycholinguistics 

Subject Language: English (code: ENG)

Dissertation Director 1: Thomas G. Bever
Dissertation Director 2: Heidi B Harley
Dissertation Director 3: Merrill F Garrett
Dissertation Director 4: Audrey L Holland

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation presents and evaluates the hypothesis that event
structure information such as telicity is used during language
comprehension. A verb or verb phrase is telic if it denotes an event
that necessarily progresses towards an endpoint. The major
experimental finding presented in this dissertation is that garden
pathing is less severe in reduced relative clause sentences with telic
embedded verbs than in those with atelic embedded verbs. For example,
in the structurally ambiguous sentence 'The actress awakened/sketched
by the writer left in a hurry', less comprehension difficulty occurs
on the word 'by' when the embedded verb is telic ('awakened') than
when it is atelic ('sketched'). On-line measures of comprehension
difficulty in three different experimental paradigms showed this
result at the earliest disambiguation point (on the by-phrase). Two of
these paradigms involved comprehension in reading, and the third one
involved spoken language comprehension. These experiments also
included the factor of obligatory transitivity: whether or not the
verb requires a direct object. The results show that telicity and
obligatory transitivity both immediately affect the severity of the
garden path independently of each other.

In order to address the issue of how to categorize verb phrases as
telic or atelic, I conducted a computerized study which collected
semantic judgments and grammaticality judgments on verb phrases used
in three classic telicity tests from the event structure
literature. The participants in the study were 24 English-speaking
students in an introductory linguistics course. The results provide
preliminary evidence that sentence frames, such as the adverbials 'for
an hour' and 'in an hour', provide an objective means of categorizing
verb phrases as telic or atelic.

The research strongly suggests that verb telicity information should
be included in models of human language comprehension. I discuss means
of including telicity in several pre-existing comprehension
models. The account that best explains the telicity and transitivity
effects taken together is based on identifying canonical sentence
patterns associated with thematic roles, as proposed by Townsend and
Bever (2001). The information that a verb is inherently telic
activates the use of an NV(N) template with an obligatory theme role.
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