Hyper-active gap filling

Akira Omaki, Ellen Lau, Imogen Davidson White, Myles Dakan, Aaron Apple, Colin Phillips

Much work has demonstrated that speakers of verb-final languages are able to construct rich syntactic representations in advance of verb information. This may reflect general architectural properties of the language processor, or it may only reflect a language-specific adaptation to the demands of verb-finality. The present study addresses this issue by examining whether speakers of a verb-medial language (English) wait to consult verb transitivity information before constructing filler-gap dependencies, where internal arguments are fronted and hence precede the verb. This configuration makes it possible to investigate whether the parser actively makes representational commitments on the gap position before verb transitivity information becomes available. A key prediction of the view that rich pre-verbal structure building is a general architectural property is that speakers of verb-medial languages should predictively construct dependencies in advance of verb transitivity information, and therefore that disruption should be observed when the verb has intransitive subcategorization frames that are incompatible with the predicted structure. In three reading experiments (selfpaced and eye-tracking) that manipulated verb transitivity, we found evidence for reading disruption when the verb was intransitive, although no such reading difficulty was observed when the critical verb was embedded inside a syntactic island structure, which blocks filler-gap dependency completion. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that in English, as in verb-final languages, information from preverbal noun phrases is sufficient to trigger active dependency completion without having access to verb transitivity information.