Relative Clause Attachment preferences have been shown to be influenced by semantic, pragmatic and prosodic factors (for evidence concerning the role of prosody and animacy, see Schafer et al., 1996 and Mak et al., 2002, respectively). This does not mean that structural principles play no role in comprehension. For example, Late Closure could take some part in the initial structuring of the utterance. Evidence of initial low-attachment (and final high-attachment) preference was found in an ERP experiment conducted in French. 16 native speakers of French were orally presented with 96 sentences of the type ``n0+V+n1+of+n2+RC'' (Example 1). They were required to perform an acceptability judgement at the end of each trial. Three factors were manipulated, namely (i) Antecedent animacy: for half of the sentences, n1 denoted a human entity and n2 an inanimate entity, whereas for the other half, the opposite was true; (ii) Prosody: a pitch accent was or was not present on the last syllable of n1; and (iii) Attachment: disambiguation either forced low or high attachment. A N400 effect was expected in the non-preferred disambiguation condition. Suppose that ``keeper'' is interpreted as the antecedent of the relative pronoun, whereas the disambiguating word ``garden'' is presented. This leads to the incongruous statement that the keeper ``had been described as a garden'', which would elicit a relatively important N400 component.
The analysis of acceptability judgements revealed a general preference for attaching to n1 on the one hand (F(1,12)=25.11), and to the noun denoting a human entity on the other hand (F(1,12)=19.68, no effect of prosody). (The same pattern of preferences was independently found with a group of 32 judges). A preference for attaching to the noun denoting a human entity was also found on line (less negativity during the presentation of the disambiguating word). However the N400 component was smaller, overall, when disambiguation forced n2 attachment (F(1,12) = 7.57, p .05). The presence of a pitch accent on n1 did hindered n2 attachment, but only in the n1-human condition (F(1,12) = 4.26 for the three-way interaction). The same pattern of results was found, whether ``less acceptable'' trials were included in the analysis or not. The implications of these results for current models of parsing will be discussed.
Mak, W. M, Vonk, W., Schriefers, H. (2002). The influence of animacy on relative clause processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 47, 50-68.
Schafer, A., Carter, J., Clifton, C. Jr., and Frazier, L. (1996). Focus on relative clause construal. Language and Cognitive Processes, 11, 135-163.