Journal of Psycholinguistic Research

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 7–25 | Cite as

Two Interpretive Systems for Natural Language?

  • Lyn Frazier


It is proposed that humans have available to them two systems for interpreting natural language. One system is familiar from formal semantics. It is a type based system that pairs a syntactic form with its interpretation using grammatical rules of composition. This system delivers both plausible and implausible meanings. The other proposed system is one that uses the grammar together with knowledge of how the human production system works. It is token based and only delivers plausible meanings, including meanings based on a repaired input when the input might have been produced as a speech error.


Natural language interpretation Speech error reversal  Mismatch ellipsis Syntactic blends Acceptable ungrammaticality Noisy channel Good enough processing 



I am very grateful to Ellen Brandner, Greg Carlson, Chuck Clifton, Pat Keating, Jason Merchant, Chris Potts, and Ivan Sag for discussion of the ideas presented here, and to Janet Dean Fodor and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by R01HD18708 to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the German study was supported by Gisbert Fanselow’s Experimental Syntax group at the University of Potsdam.


  1. Arregui, A., Clifton, C., Frazier, L., & Moulton, K. (2006). Processing elided VP s with flawed antecedents. Journal of Memory and Language, 55, 232–246.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bemis, D. K., & Pylkkänen, L. (2011). Simple composition: An MEG investigation into the comprehension of minimal linguistic phrases. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(8), 2801–2814.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bever, T. G. (1976). Analogy or ungrammatical sequences that are utterable and comprehensible are the origins of new grammars in language acquisition and language evolution. In T. G. Bever, J. J. Katz, & D. T. Langendoen (Eds.), An integrated theory of linguistic ability (pp. 149–182). New York: T.Y Crowell Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bock, K. (2011). How much correction of syntactic errors are there, anyway? Language and Linguistics Compass, 5, 322–335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bolinger, D. (1961). Syntactic blends and other matters. Language, 37(3), 366–381.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Brouwer, H., Fitz, H., & Hoeks, J. (2012). Getting real about semantic illusions: Rethinking the functional role of the P600 in language comprehension. Brain Research, 1446, 127–143.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cohen, G. L. (1987). Syntactic blends in English parole. Frankfurt a. M., Bern, New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  8. Coppock, E. (2006). Alignment in syntactic blending. MIT Working Papers in Linguistics, 13, 239–255.Google Scholar
  9. Cutting, J. C., & Bock, K. (1997). That’s the way the cookie bounces: Syntactic and semantic components of experimentally elicited idiom blends. Memory and Cognition, 25(1), 57–71.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Doyle, G., & Levy, R. (2012). Word-order uncertainty induces alternative, non-veridical structures in online comprehension. Poster presented at the 25th annual conference on human sentence processing, March 14–16, New York.Google Scholar
  11. Fay, D. (1982). Substitutions and splices: A study of sentence blends. In A. Cutler (Ed.), Slips of the tongue and language production. Amsterdam: William De Gruyter/Mouton.Google Scholar
  12. Ferreira, F., & Patson, N. (2007). The ‘good enough’ approach to language comprehension. Language and Linguistic Compass, 1, 71–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fodor, J. D., & Ferreira, F. (1998). Reanalysis in sentence processing. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Frazier, L. (2008a). Processing ellipsis: A processing solution to the undergeneration problem. In C. Chang & H. Haynie (Eds.), Proceedings of WCCFL 26, Cascadilla.Google Scholar
  15. Frazier, L. (2008b). Is ‘Good Enough’ processing good enough? In L. Arcuri, P. Boscolo, & F. Peresotti (Eds.), Festschrift in honor of Ino Flores d’Arcais. Padua: University of Padua.Google Scholar
  16. Frazier, L., & Clifton, C. (1998). Sentence reanalysis, and visibility. In J. D. Fodor & F. Ferreira (Eds.), Reanalysis in sentence processing. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  17. Frazier, L., & Clifton, C. (2005). The syntax–discourse divide: Processing ellipsis. Syntax, 8(2), 121–174.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Frazier, L., & Clifton, C. (2011a). Quantifiers undone: Reversing predictable speech errors in comprehension. Language, 87(1), 158–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Frazier, L., & Clifton, C. (2011b). Dynamic interpretation: Finding an antecedent for VPE. In J. A. Harris & M. Grant (Eds.), University of Massachusetts Occasional Papers in Linguistics (pp. 23–36).Google Scholar
  20. Frazier, L., & Clifton, Jr., C. (in progress). Fragment answers to questions: Experimental evidence for inaudible structure.Google Scholar
  21. Frazier, L., & Clifton, Jr., C. (submitted). Without his shirt off he saved the child from almost drowning: Interpreting uncertain input.Google Scholar
  22. Garnham, A., & Oakhill, J. (1987). Interpreting elliptical VPs. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 39A, 611–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Garrett, M. F. (2000). Remarks on the architecture of language processing systems. In Y. Grodzinsky, L. Shapiro, & D. Swinney (Eds.), Language and brain. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  24. Gennari, S., & MacDonald, M. E. (2009). Linking production and comprehension: The case of relative clauses. Cognition, 111(1), 1–23.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Giannakidou, A. (1998). Polarity sensitivity as (non)veridicality. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Giannakidou, A. (1999). Affective dependencies. Linguistics and Philosophy, 22, 367–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gibson, E., & Bergen, L. (2012). The rational integration of noise and prior semantic expectation. Poster presented at the 25th annual conference on human sentence processing, March 14–16, New York.Google Scholar
  28. Grant, M., Clifton, C., & Frazier, L. (2012). The role of non-actuality implicatures in processing elided constituents. Journal of Memory and Language, 66(1), 326–343.PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Haider, H. (2009). Is ungrammaticality in the eye of the beholder? University of Amsterdam Workshop, May 19, 2009.Google Scholar
  30. Harris, A., & Samuels, A. (2011). Perception of exuberant exponence in Batsbi: Functional or incidental? Language, 87(3), 447–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company, Inc.Google Scholar
  32. Kaan, E., & Swaab, T. (2003). Repair, revision and complexity in syntactic analysis: An electrophysiological differentiation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15(1), 98–110.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kawachi, K. (2002). Practice effects in speech production planning: Evidence from slips of the tongue in spontaneous and preplanned speech in Japanese. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 31, 363–390.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kim, A., & Osterhout, L. (2005). The independence of combinatory semantic processing: Evidence from event-related potentials. Journal of Memory and Language, 52(2), 205–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kim, C. S., Kobele, G. M., Runner, J. T., & Hale, J. T. (2011). The acceptability cline in VP ellipsis. Syntax, 14, 318–354.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Langendoen, D. T., & Bever, T. G. (1973). Can a not unhappy man be called a not sad one? In S. R. Anderson & P. Kiparsky (Eds.), A festschrift for Morris Halle (pp. 392–409). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc.Google Scholar
  37. Lees, R. (1961). Grammatical analysis of the English comparative construction. Word, 17(2), 171–185.Google Scholar
  38. Levy, R. (2008). A noisy-channel model of rational human sentence comprehension under uncertain input. EMNLP.Google Scholar
  39. Lewis, C., & Phillips, S. (2014). Aligning Grammatical Theories and Language Processing Models. J Psycholinguist Res. doi: 10.1007/s10936-014-9329-z
  40. Luka, B., & Barsalou, L. (2005). Structural facilitation: Mere exposure effects for grammatical acceptability as evidence for syntactic priming in comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 436–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mehler, J. (1963). Some effects of grammatical transformations on the recall of English sentences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 346–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Merchant, J. (2004). Fragments and ellipsis. Linguistics and Philosophy, 27, 661–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Merchant, J. (2013). Voice and ellipsis. Linguistic Inquiry, 44, 77–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Merchant, J., Frazier, L., Clifton, C., & Weskott, T. (2013). Fragment answers to questions. In L. Goldstein (Ed.), Short cuts (tentative title). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Otero, C. (1972). Acceptable ungrammatical sentences in Spanish. Linguistic Inquiry, 3, 233–242.Google Scholar
  46. Paglia, M. (Ms). Syntactic blends. UMass undergraduate term paper. (unpublished paper)Google Scholar
  47. Pearlmutter, N. J., Garnsey, S. M., & Bock, K. (1999). Agreement processes in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 11, 427–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Pickering, M., & Garrod, S. (2013). An integrated theory of language production and comprehension. Brain and Behavior Sciences, 36(4), 1–64. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X12001495.Google Scholar
  49. Pullum, G. K., & Scholz, B. C. (2002). Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments. The Linguistic Review, 19, 9–50.Google Scholar
  50. Sag, I. (1976). Deletion and logical form. MIT doctoral dissertation.Google Scholar
  51. Sag, I., & Hankamer, J. (1984). Toward a theory of anaphoric processing. Linguistics and Philosophy, 7, 325–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. San Pietro, S., Merchant, J., & Xiang, M. (2012). Accounting for voice mismatch in ellipsis. In Proceedings of the 30th west coast conference on formal linguistics (pp. 303–312). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press. Poster presented at the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics 30, Santa Cruz, CA.Google Scholar
  53. Sauerland, U., & Yatsushiro, K. (Eds.). (2008). Semantics and pragmatics: From experiment to theory (pp. 219–227). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.Google Scholar
  54. Schumacher, P. (2013). When combinatorial processing results in reconceptualization: Toward a new approach of compositionality. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 677. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00677.
  55. Schwarz, F., & Tiemann, S. (2013). The path of presupposition projection in processing—The case of conditionals. In E. Chemla, V. Homer & G. Winterstein (Eds.), Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung (Vol. 17, pp. 527–544).Google Scholar
  56. Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2004). Sentence comprehension in a wider discourse: Can we use ERPs to keep track of things? In M. Carreiras Jr & C. Clifton (Eds.), The on-line study of sentence comprehension: Eyetracking, ERPs and beyond (pp. 229–270). New York: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  57. Wagers, M., Lau, E., & Phillips, C. (2009). Agreement attraction in comprehension: Representations and processes. Journal of Memory and Language, 61, 206–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Williams, E. (1978). Across-the-board rule application. Linguistic Inquiry, 9, 31–44.Google Scholar
  59. Zeijlstra, H. (2007). Doubling: The semantic driving force behind functional categories. Logic, Language, and Computation, 260–280.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MassachusettsAmherstUSA

Personalised recommendations