Achieving incremental semantic interpretation through contextual representation

Cognition. 1999 Jun 22;71(2):109-47. doi: 10.1016/s0010-0277(99)00025-6.


While much work has been done investigating the role of context in the incremental processing of syntactic indeterminacies, relatively little is known about online semantic interpretation. The experiments in this article made use of the eye-tracking paradigm with spoken language and visual contexts in order to examine how, and when listeners make use of contextually-defined contrast in interpreting simple prenominal adjectives. Experiment 1 focused on intersective adjectives. Experiment 1A provided further evidence that intersective adjectives are processed incrementally. Experiment 1B compared response times to follow instructions such as 'Pick up the blue comb' under conditions where there were two blue objects (e.g. a blue pen and a blue comb), but only one of these objects had a contrasting member in the display. Responses were faster to objects with a contrasting member, establishing that the listeners initially assume a contrastive interpretation for intersective adjectives. Experiments 2 and 3 focused on vague scalar adjectives examining the time course with which listeners establish contrast for scalar adjectives such as tall using information provided by the head noun (e.g. glass) and information provided by the visual context. Use of head-based information was examined by manipulating the typicality of the target object (e.g. whether it was a good or poor example of a tall glass. Use of context-dependent contrast was examined by either having only a single glass in the display (the no contrast condition) or a contrasting object (e.g. a smaller glass). The pattern of results indicated that listeners interpreted the scalar adjective incrementally taking into account context-specific contrast prior to encountering the head. Moreover, the presence of a contrasting object, sharply reduced, and in some conditions completely eliminated, typicality effects. The results suggest a language processing system in which semantic interpretation, as well as syntactic processing, is conducted incrementally, with early integration of contextual information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Color Perception
  • Discrimination Learning
  • Eye Movements
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Reading*
  • Semantics*
  • Speech Perception*