Negative polarity illusions and the format of hierarchical encodings in memory

Dan Parker, Colin Phillips

Linguistic illusions have provided valuable insights into how we mentally navigate complex representations in memory during language comprehension. Two notable cases involve illusory licensing of agreement and negative polarity items (NPIs), where comprehenders fleetingly accept sentences with unlicensed agreement or an unlicensed NPI, but judge those same sentences as unacceptable after more reflection. Existing accounts have argued that illusions are a consequence of faulty memory access processes, and make the additional assumption that the encoding of the sentence remains fixed over time. This paper challenges the predictions made by these accounts, which assume that illusions should generalize to a broader set of structural environments and a wider range of syntactic and semantic phenomena. We show across seven reading-time and acceptability judgment experiments that NPI illusions can be reliably switched “on” and “off”, depending on the amount of time from when the potential licensor is processed until the NPI is encountered. But we also find that the same profile does not extend to agreement illusions. This contrast suggests that the mechanisms responsible for switching the NPI illusion on and off are not shared across all illusions. We argue that the contrast reflects changes over time in the encoding of the semantic/pragmatic representations that can license NPIs. Just as optical illusions have been informative about the visual system, selective linguistic illusions are informative not only about the nature of the access mechanisms, but also about the nature of the encoding mechanisms.