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Review of  Small words, big effects?

Reviewer: Sibo Chen
Book Title: Small words, big effects?
Book Author: Anneloes Canestrelli
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Issue Number: 24.3452

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Similar to other PhD dissertations published by the Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics, “Small Words, Big Effects?” presents a latest development in linguistics and is a very informative read for researchers in psycholinguistics and discourse analysis. The purpose of this book is to provide a theoretical framework for subjective versus objective causal connectives (i.e. words such as “so”, “because”, and “therefore” that are placed between two clauses to mark causal relations) in discourse processing. The project presented in this book investigates whether the difference between subjective and objective causal connectives is relevant in discourse online processing.

Chapter One introduces the topic of coherence markers in discourse processing and provides an outline for the following chapters. Coherence markers are very important for human communication, as coherence needs to be established between pieces of communicated information. Causal relations are an important aspect of coherence. In general, there are two types of causal relations: objective causal relations express “causality between events in the real world”, whereas subjective causal relations express “the relations between the speakers’ conclusions on the basis of events in the world” (p. 14). For instance, sentence (1a) presents an objective causal relation while sentence (1b) presents a subjective causal relation. In addition, causality can be further distinguished between forward and backward relations. The difference between forward and backward causal relations lies in the order of events as they are presented in the text. Forward relations have “a linear order in which causes precede effects”, whereas backward relations “reverse this order and let effects precede causes” (p. 14). For example, sentence (2a) presents a forward causal relation while sentence (2b) presents a backward causal relation.

(1) a. My neighbour broke his arm because he tripped over his shoelace.
b. My neighbour was being an idiot again because he tripped over his shoelace.

(2) a. My neighbour tripped over his shoelace and as a result he broke his arm.
b. My neighbour broke his arm because he tripped over his shoelace.
(Examples are cited from the reviewed book, p. 14)

Based on the above definitions, the project outlined in the following chapters explored the differences between the causal relation markers “want” and “omdat” in Dutch and whether these differences can further influence discourse online processing, as tested via eye-tracking experiments.

Chapter Two presents theoretical background on subjectivity in processing causal connectives. In particular, the Dutch connective “want” is compared with the English connective “because”, although both “want” and “because” can express subjective and objective causal relations. The eye-tracking experiment reported in this chapter shows that subjective causals with “because” led to longer processing times compared to the objective ones, with the effect arising right before the end of the second clause. By comparison, there was no processing difference between these two types of causal relations with “want”. This outcome suggests that “want” and “because” have different influences on the processing of causal relations.

Chapter Three further investigates whether the difference between “want” and “because” in online discourse processing is caused by the subjectivity embedded in “want”. Three eye-tracking experiments were conducted in which “want” was compared with “omdat”, the prototypical connective that marks objective causal relations in Dutch. In short, the experimental results show that subjective causal relations with “want” led to longer processing times compared to objective causal relations with “omdat”, and such processing differences were similar to the source of processing difference between subjective and objective causal relations in English. In addition, the experiments also found that the processing pattern of “want” versus “omdat” was unrelated to the actual content of the combined text segments. This chapter concludes that the Dutch connectives “want” and “omdat” provide instructions for readers about the type of causal relation that needs to be constructed: “want” instructs readers to construct a subjective causal relation, whereas “omdat” instructs readers to construct an objective relation.

Chapter Four continues to explore the processing complexity of subjective causal relations, but now introduces the mental space perspective. Mental Space Theory (MST) (Fauconnier, 1985) proposes that mental spaces are constructed during communication, and according to this theory, the difference between subjective and objective causal relations is caused by their different mental space configurations. Two eye-track experiments are reported in this chapter, focusing on whether the processing complexity of subjective causal relations is related to the setup of mental space. The results of the first experiment show that although the enhancement of text subjectivity through the addition of evaluative adverbs increased the processing times of subsequent information, the asymmetry between “want” and “omdat” cannot be explained by the necessity of setting up a new mental space. Meanwhile, the results of the second experiment further confirm the lack of effect of space builders on the processing difference between “want” and “omdat”. Based on the above findings, the chapter proposes that the processing complexity of subjective causal relations may be explained by the placement of the first sentence in a subjective causal relation (S1) as a whole within the mental space of the relevant thinking subject.

Chapter Five examines the proposal that the processing effects of subjective causal relations can be explained by a reanalysis of S1 as a claim or conclusion due to the presence of subjective causal markers (Traxler, Sanford, Aked, & Moxey, 1997). Three eye-tracking experiments were conducted. In sum, the first experiment reveals that the complexity of subjective causal relations cannot be explained by a reanalysis of S1 as a claim; the second experiment shows that the inherent complexity of subjective causal relations is not related to reasoning processes; and most importantly, the third experiment uncovers that the processing complexity of subjective causality can be explained by the notion of speaker involvement.

Chapter Six summarises the main findings from each chapter and proposes a tentative processing model for subjective versus objective causal connectives. Compared with objective causal relations, subjective causal relations require the representation of the mind of the thinking subject who is responsible for the presented information, which ultimately leads to its processing complexity. This chapter further proposes suggestions for future studies and discusses the book’s implications for discourse processing research.


The in-depth analyses presented in this book serve as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, such analyses are very informative for linguists who are familiar with eye-tracking research methods and interested in the topic of discourse processing; on the other hand, the complexity of theories and experiments are not sufficiently addressed, which, consequently, may cause considerable difficulty for readers without sufficient theoretical background. For instance, the technical terms involved in the description of eye-tracking experiments in Chapters Two to Five were not explained, which may influence the readers’ accurate interpretations of these results. Another example is the discussion of Mental Space Theory in Chapter Four, which only dedicates two pages to review this theory despite its theoretical importance for the entire study. However, this issue of knowledge threshold is somewhat solved by the book’s chapter organization. Chapters Two to Five are written as individual papers and have been published either as journal papers or presented at academic conferences. Although such organization inevitably leads to repetition and overlap between each chapter, it turns out to be a great advantage for readers, as the repetition offers a necessary review of the book’s theoretical framework. Another merit of this book is its brevity. Unlike many dissertations with excessive chapters for explaining general concepts of discourse processing, chapters in the reviewed book provide succinct but comprehensive theoretical discussions, which improve the coherence of the entire book. In sum, “Small Words, Big Effects?” is a book written for linguists with interests in discourse processing and can be an informative read for graduate students as well as junior researchers of discourse analysis.


Canestrelli, A. (2013). “Small words, big effects? Subjective versus objective causal connectives in discourse processing”. Utrecht, NL: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics.

Fauconnier, G. (1985). “Mental spaces: Aspects of meaning construction in natural language.” Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Traxler, M. J., Bybee, M. D., & Pickering, M. J. (1997). Influence of connectives on language comprehension: Eye tracking evidence for incremental interpretation. “The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology” Section A,50(3), 481-497. doi:10.1080/027249897391982
Sibo Chen is a graduate student in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He received his MA in Applied Linguistics from the Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria, Canada. His major research interests are language and communication, discourse analysis, and genre theories.

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