A Rational Model of Incremental Argument Interpretation: The Comprehension of Swedish Transitive Clauses

Front Psychol. 2021 Oct 15;12:674202. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.674202. eCollection 2021.


A central component of sentence understanding is verb-argument interpretation, determining how the referents in the sentence are related to the events or states expressed by the verb. Previous work has found that comprehenders change their argument interpretations incrementally as the sentence unfolds, based on morphosyntactic (e.g., case, agreement), lexico-semantic (e.g., animacy, verb-argument fit), and discourse cues (e.g., givenness). However, it is still unknown whether these cues have a privileged role in language processing, or whether their effects on argument interpretation originate in implicit expectations based on the joint distribution of these cues with argument assignments experienced in previous language input. We compare the former, linguistic account against the latter, expectation-based account, using data from production and comprehension of transitive clauses in Swedish. Based on a large corpus of Swedish, we develop a rational (Bayesian) model of incremental argument interpretation. This model predicts the processing difficulty experienced at different points in the sentence as a function of the Bayesian surprise associated with changes in expectations over possible argument interpretations. We then test the model against reading times from a self-paced reading experiment on Swedish. We find Bayesian surprise to be a significant predictor of reading times, complementing effects of word surprisal. Bayesian surprise also captures the qualitative effects of morpho-syntactic and lexico-semantic cues. Additional model comparisons find that it-with a single degree of freedom-captures much, if not all, of the effects associated with these cues. This suggests that the effects of form- and meaning-based cues to argument interpretation are mediated through expectation-based processing.

Keywords: Bayesian inference; Swedish; argument interpretation; expectation-based processing; grammatical function assignment; language comprehension; self-paced reading.