Syntactic prediction and lexical frequency effects in sentence processing

Ellen Lau, Katya Rozanova, Colin Phillips

This paper presents three experiments which examine the effect of lexical surface frequency on sentence processing and the interaction between surface frequency and syntactic prediction. The first two experiments make use of the self-paced reading paradigm to show that processing time differences due to surface frequency (e.g., the frequency of cats not including occurrences of cat), which have previously been demonstrated in isolated word tasks like lexical decision, also give rise to reaction time differences in sentence processing tasks, in this case for singular and plural English nouns. The second experiment investigates whether a prediction for the number morpheme triggered by the number-marked determiners this and these might counter the surface frequency effect; however, the small size of the surface frequency effect and baseline differences in reaction times to this and these made the results unclear. Results from a third experiment using lexical decision suggest that the difference in the size of the surface frequency effects between the lexical decision experiments and the self-paced-reading experiments are likely due to differences in task demands. Our results have methodological implications for psycholinguistic experiments that manipulate morphology as a means of examining other questions of interest.