Going the distance: Memory and control processes in active dependency construction

Matthew Wagers, Colin Phillips

Filler–gap dependencies make strong demands on working memory in language comprehension because they cannot always be immediately resolved. In a series of three reading-time studies, we test the idea that these demands can be decomposed into active maintenance processes and retrieval events. Results indicate that the fact that a displaced phrase exists and the identity of its basic syntactic category both immediately impact comprehension at potential gap sites. In contrast, specific lexical details of the displaced phrase show an immediate effect only for short dependencies and a much later effect for longer dependencies. We argue that coarse-grained information about the filler is actively maintained and is used to make phrase structure parsing decisions, whereas finer grained information is more quickly released from active maintenance and consequently has to be retrieved at the gap site.