A test of the relation between working-memory capacity and syntactic island effects

Jon Sprouse, Matt Wagers, Colin Phillips

The source of syntactic island effects has been a topic of considerable debate within linguistics and psycholinguistics. Explanations fall into three basic categories: grammatical theories, which posit specific grammatical constraints that exclude extraction from islands; grounded theories, which posit grammaticized constraints that have arisen to adapt to constraints on learning or parsing; and reductionist theories, which analyze island effects as emergent consequences of non-grammatical constraints on the sentence parser, such as limited processing resources. In this article we present two studies designed to test a fundamental prediction of one of the most prominent reductionist theories: that the strength of island effects should vary across speakers as a function of individual differences in processing resources. We tested over three hundred native speakers of English on four different island-effect types (whether, complex NP, subject, and adjunct islands) using two different acceptability rating tasks (seven-point scale and magnitude estimation) and two different measures of working-memory capacity (serial recall and n-back). We find no evidence of a relationship between working-memory capacity and island effects using a variety of statistical analysis techniques, including resampling simulations. These results suggest that island effects are more likely to be due to grammatical constraints or grounded grammaticized constraints than to limited processing resources.