Journal of Psycholinguistic Research

, Volume 38, Issue 5, pp 491–509 | Cite as

A Hierarchical Linear Modeling Analysis of Working Memory and Implicit Prosody in the Resolution of Adjunct Attachment Ambiguity

  • Matthew J. Traxler
Open Access


An eye-movement monitoring experiment investigated readers’ response to temporarily ambiguous sentences. The sentences were ambiguous because a relative clause could attach to one of two preceding nouns. Semantic information disambiguated the sentences. Working memory considerations predict an overall preference for the second of the two nouns, as does the late closure principle (Frazier, On comprehending sentences: Syntactic parsing strategies. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut. West Bend, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club, 1979). Previous studies assessing preferences for such items have obtained mixed results. On-line assessments show that working memory affects the degree of preference for the first noun, with lower capacity readers having a greater preference for the second noun (Felser et al., Language Acquisition: A Journal of Developmental Linguistics, 11, 127–163, 2003; Traxler, Memory & Cognition, 35, 1107–1121, 2007). Off-line assessments indicate the opposite pattern of preferences when the test sentences are displayed on a single line (Swets et al., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 64–81, 2007). However, when implicit prosody is manipulated by displaying the sentences with a break between the second noun and the relative clause, the off-line assessments indicate that readers prefer to attach the relative clause to the first noun. In this experiment, readers’ undertook a working memory assessment and then read test sentences that were displayed across two lines, with a break appearing after the second noun and before the relative clause. The eye-tracking data indicated an overall preference to attach the relative clause to the first noun, and there was little indication that working memory moderated the degree of preference for this configuration. Hence, it appears that readers’ implicit prosodic contours rapidly affect resolution of adjunct attachment ambiguities.


Syntax Grammar Adjunct Ambiguity resolution Eye-tracking Implicit prosody Sentence processing Working memory Relative clause 



The author wishes to thank Kristen Tooley for assistance in data collection. This project was supported by awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF#0446618) and the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH#040865). Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this issue and offering a number of very fine suggestions.

Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


  1. Blozis S.A., Traxler M.J. (2007) Analyzing individual differences in sentence processing performance using multilevel models. Behavior Research Methods 39: 31–38PubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Brysbaert M., Mitchell D.C. (1996) Modifier attachment in sentence processing: Evidence from Dutch. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. A, Human Experimental Psychology 49: 664–695. doi: 10.1080/027249896392540 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Caplan D., Waters G.S. (1995) Aphasic disorders of syntactic comprehension and working memory capacity. Cognitive Neuropsychology 12: 637–649. doi: 10.1080/02643299508252011 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Caplan D., Waters G.S. (1999) Verbal working memory and sentence comprehension. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22: 77–126PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Carreiras M., Clifton C. Jr. (1993) Relative clause interpretation preferences in Spanish and English. Language and Speech 36: 353–372PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Cuetos F., Mitchell D.C. (1988) Cross-linguistic differences in parsing: Restrictions on the use of the late closure strategy in Spanish. Cognition 30: 73–105PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Daneman M., Carpenter P.A. (1980) Individual differences in comprehending and producing words in context. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 19: 450–466. doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(80)90312-6 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ericsson A., Kintsch W. (1995) Long term working memory. Psychological Review 102: 211–245. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.102.2.211 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Felser C., Marinis T., Clahsen H. (2003) Children’s processing of ambiguous sentences: A study of relative clause attachment. Language Acquisition: A Journal of Developmental Linguistics 11: 127–163. doi: 10.1207/s15327817la1103_1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Frazier, L. (1979). On comprehending sentences: Syntactic parsing strategies. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Connecticut. West Bend, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club.Google Scholar
  11. Frazier L. (1990) Parsing modifiers: Special purpose routines in the human sentence processing mechanism?. In: Balota D, Floresd’ Arcais G.B., Rayner K. (eds) Comprehension processes in reading. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp 303–330Google Scholar
  12. Frazier L., Clifton C. Jr. (1996) Construal. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  13. Gibson E. (2000) The dependency locality theory: A distance-based theory of linguistic complexity. In: Marantz A., Miyashita Y., O’Neil W. (eds) Image, language, brain: Papers from the first mind articulation project symposium. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 94–126Google Scholar
  14. Gilboy E.J., Sopena M., Clifton C. Jr, Frazier L. (1995) Argument structure and association preferences in Spanish and English compound NPs. Cognition 54: 131–167. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(94)00636-Y PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Just M.A., Carpenter P.A. (1992) A capacity theory of comprehension: Individual differences in working memory capacity. Psychological Review 99: 122–149. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.99.1.122 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Just M.A., Carpenter P.A., Keller T.A. (1996) The capacity theory of comprehension: New frontiers of evidence and arguments. Psychological Review 103: 773–780. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.103.4.773 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Just M.A., Varma S. (2002) A hybrid architecture for working memory: Reply to MacDonald and Christiansen (2002). Psychological Review 109: 55–65. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.109.1.55 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. King J.W., Just M.A. (1991) Individual differences in syntactic parsing: The role of working memory. Journal of Memory and Language 30: 580–602. doi: 10.1016/0749-596X(91)90027-H CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. King J.W., Kutas M. (1995) Who did what and when? Using word- and clause-level ERPs to monitor working memory usage in reading. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 7: 376–395. doi: 10.1162/jocn.1995.7.3.376 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kjelgaard M.M., Speer S.R. (1999) Prosodic facilitation and interference in the resolution of temporary syntactic closure ambiguity. Journal of Memory and Language 40: 153–194. doi: 10.1006/jmla.1998.2620 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. MacDonald M.C., Christiansen M.C. (2002) Reassessing working memory: Comment on Just and Carpenter (1992) and Waters and Caplan (1996). Psychological Review 109: 35–54. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.109.1.35 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pearlmutter N.J., MacDonald M.E. (1995) Individual differences and probabilistic constraints in syntactic ambiguity resolution. Journal of Memory and Language 34: 521–542. doi: 10.1006/jmla.1995.1024 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Raudenbush S.W., Bryk A.S. (2002) Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Sage, Newbury Park, CAGoogle Scholar
  24. Rayner K., Warren T., Juhasz B. J., Liversedge S.P. (2004) The effect of plausibility on eye-movements in reading. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition 30: 1290–1301. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.30.6.1290 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Snijders T., Bosker R. (1999) Multilevel analysis. Sage, LondonGoogle Scholar
  26. Speer S.R., Kjelgaard M.M., Dobroth K.M. (1996) The influence of prosodic structure on the resolution of temporary syntactic closure ambiguities. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 25: 249–271. doi: 10.1007/BF01708573 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Swets B., Desmet T., Hambrick D.Z., Ferreira F. (2007) The role of working memory in syntactic ambiguity resolution: A psychometric approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 136: 64–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Traxler M.J. (2007) Working memory contributions to relative clause attachment processing: A hierarchical linear modeling analysis. Memory & Cognition 35: 1107–1121Google Scholar
  29. Traxler M.J., Morris R.K., Seely R.E. (2002) Processing Subject and object relative clauses: Evidence from eye-movements. Journal of Memory and Language 47: 69–90. doi: 10.1006/jmla.2001.2836 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Traxler M.J., Pickering M.J., Clifton C. Jr. (1998) Adjunct attachment is not a form of lexical ambiguity resolution. Journal of Memory and Language 39: 558–592. doi: 10.1006/jmla.1998.2600 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Traxler M.J., Tooley K.M. (2007) Lexical mediation and context effects in parsing. Brain Research 1146: 59–74PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Traxler M.J., Williams R.S., Blozis S.A., Morris R.K. (2005) Working memory, animacy, and verb class in the processing of relative clauses. Journal of Memory and Language 53: 204–224. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2005.02.010 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Turner M.L., Engle R.W. (1989) Is working memory capacity task dependent?. Journal of Memory and Language 28: 127–154. doi: 10.1016/0749-596X(89)90040-5 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Waters G.S., Caplan D. (1992) The capacity theory of sentence comprehension: Critique of Just and Carpenter. Psychological Review 103: 761–772. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.103.4.761 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Waters G.S., Caplan D. (1996a) The measurement of verbal working memory capacity and its relation to reading comprehension. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 49: 51–79. doi: 10.1080/027249896392801 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Waters G.S., Caplan D. (1996) Processing resource capacity and the comprehension of garden path sentences. Memory & Cognition 24: 342–355Google Scholar
  37. Waters G.S., Caplan D. (2003) The reliability and stability of verbal working memory measures. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers 35: 550–564Google Scholar
  38. Waters G.S., Caplan D., Rochon E. (1995) Processing capacity and sentence comprehension in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive Neuropsychology 12: 1–38. doi: 10.1080/02643299508251990 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Zagar D., Pynte J., Rativeau S. (1997) Evidence for early-closure attachment on first-pass reading times in French. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. A, Human Experimental Psychology 50: 421–438. doi: 10.1080/027249897392161 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California, DavisDavisUSA

Personalised recommendations