Structured Access in Sentence Comprehension

Brian W. Dillon

This thesis is concerned with the nature of memory access during the construction of long-distance dependencies in online sentence comprehension. In recent years, an intense focus on the computational challenges posed by long-distance dependencies has proven to be illuminating with respect to the characteristics of the architecture of the human sentence processor, suggesting a tight link between general memory access procedures and sentence processing routines (Lewis & Vasishth 2005; Lewis, Vasishth, & Van Dyke 2006; Wagers, Lau & Phillips 2009). The present thesis builds upon this line of research, and its primary aim is to motivate and defend the hypothesis that the parser accesses linguistic memory in an essentially structured fashion for certain long-distance dependencies. In order to make this case, I focus on the processing of reflexive and agreement dependencies, and ask whether or not non- structural information such as morphological features are used to gate memory access during syntactic comprehension. Evidence from eight experiments in a range of methodologies in English and Chinese is brought to bear on this question, providing arguments from interference effects and time-course effects that primarily syntactic information is used to access linguistic memory in the construction of certain long- distance dependencies. The experimental evidence for structured access is compatible with a variety of architectural assumptions about the parser, and I present one implementation of this idea in a parser based on the ACT-R memory architecture. In the context of such a content-addressable model of memory, the claim of structured access is equivalent to the claim that only syntactic cues are used to query memory. I argue that structured access reflects an optimal parsing strategy in the context of a noisy, interference-prone cognitive architecture: abstract structural cues are favored over lexical feature cues for certain structural dependencies in order to minimize memory interference in online processing.