Sentence Processing and Psycholinguistics (PSYL10061)

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Sentence Processing and Psycholinguistics (PSYL10061)

Understanding our native language seems almost effortless, yet the task is actually highly complex, and requires fast integration of many different types of information, involving virtually all domains of cognition.  This course will introduce students to the state-of-the art of our understanding of how humans understand language.  



This course will describe and elucidate current theories of sentence comprehension in the light of evidence from a range of experimental techniques.  The course aims to give an appreciation of the role of different sources of information relevant to the task, including grammatical, semantic and pragmatic information.  We will also look at the interface between sentence comprehension and working memory.


Lecture structure

The first part of each lecture will be used to explain the theoretical background to that week’s topic. In the second part of each lecture, we will look at how experimental methods can be used to address the research questions. In-class feedback exercises will be used to check understanding (e.g. multiple choice questions) and peer-led discussions will be used in an on-going, informal manner.


Introduction to sentence structure and ambiguity
This lecture will cover some basic background on syntactic analysis. We will show how syntactic ambiguity corresponds to a choice between different syntactic structures, for a given sentence or sentence fragment. The lecture will also introduce competing theories that seek to explain how one alternative is chosen over another Hare, M., McRae, K., and Elman, J.L. (2003). Sense and Structure: meaning as a determinant of subcategorization preferences. Journal of Memory and Language, 48; 281-303
S.1, 7 George Square
18/01/2019 - 2:10pm to 4:00pm
The role of linguistic and visual context in sentence comprehension
This lecture will introduce various types of context, and show how they can be studied using experimental methodology. The lecture will include discussion of how the visual world can affect speech comprehension. 1) Altman, G., Garnham, A., and Dennis, &. (1992). Avoiding the Garden Path: Eye-movements in context. Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 685-712 2) Tanenhaus, M., Spivey-Knowlton, M., Eberhard, K., and Sedivy, J. (1995). Integration of visual and linguistic information in spoken language comprehension. Science 268, 1632-1634 3) Trueswell, J., Sekerina, I, Hill, N., and Logrip, M. (1999). The kindergarten-path effect: Studying on-line sentence processing in young children. Cognition 73, 89-134 4) Weighall, A. R. (2007). The kindergarten-path effect revisited: children’s use of context in processing structural ambiguities. Journal of experimental child psychology, 99, p. 75
S.1, 7 George Square
25/01/2019 - 2:10pm to 4:00pm
Prediction in Sentence Processing.
This lecture will evaluate the claim that sentence processing involves the active prediction of up-coming linguistic input. We will highlight the distinction between theoretical accounts based on prediction and integration, and we the discussion will be illustrated with different experimental methods, including eye-tracking and EEG. 1) Kutas, M., and Hillyard, S. (1984). Brain potentials during reading reflect word expectancy and semantic association. Nature, 307. p161-163 2) Van Berkum, J., Brown, C., Zwitserlood, P., Kooijman, V., and Hagoort, P. (2005). Anticipating upcoming words in discourse: Evidence from ERPs and reading times. Journal of Experimental Psychology: LMC. 31, 443-467 3) Altmann, G., and Kamide, Y. (1999). Incremental interpretation at verbs: restricting the domain of subsequent reference. Cognition 73, 247-264 4) Kamide, Y., Scheepers, C., and Altmann, G.T., (2003). Integration of syntactic and semantic information in predictive processing: Cross-linguistic evidence from German and English. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 32, p.37-55 5) Dikker, S., and Pylkkänen, L. (2013). Predicting language: MEG evidence for lexical preactivation. Brain and language 127 (1), 55-64 6) Bonhage, C.E., Mueller, J.L., Friederici, A.D., and Fiebach, C.J. (2015) Combined eye tracking and fMRI reveals neural basis of linguistic predictions during sentence comprehension. Cortex, 68, 33-47
S.1, 7 George Square
01/02/2019 - 2:10pm to 4:00pm
Sentence Processing and Working Memory
In this lecture, we will look at the interface between linguistic processing and working memory processes. The lecture will cover the main working memory components of encoding, storage and retrieval, and how they affect the process of sentence comprehension. 1) Chen, E., Gibson, E., and Wolf, F. (2005). Online syntactic storage costs in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 144-169 2) Fedorenko, E., Gibson, E., and Rohde, D. (2006); The nature of working memory capacity in sentence comprehension: Evidence against domain-specific working memory resources. Journal of Memory and Language 54, p.541-553. 3) McElree, B., Foraker, S., and Dyer, L. (2003). Memory structures that subserve sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language 48, 67-91 4) VanDyke, J., and McElree, B. (2006). Retrieval interverence in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 55, p.157-166 5) Caplan, D., and Waters, G., (2013). Memory mechanisms supporting syntactic comprehension. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20, p.243-268 6) Tanner, D., Nicol, J., and Brehm, L. (2014). The time-course of feature interference in agreement comprehension: multiple mechanisms and asymmetrical attraction. Journal of Memory and Language 76, 195–215
S.1, 7 George Square
08/02/2019 - 2:10pm to 4:00pm
The Relation between Syntax and Semantics in Sentence Processing
This lecture will consider the question of how our knowledge of grammar constrains our interpretation of sentences. Is interpretation always guided by grammatical rules? and if not, under what circumstances can we adopt “ungrammatical” interpretations of sentences? 1) Ferreira, F. (2003). The misinterpretation of non-canonical sentences. Cognitive Psychology 47, p.164-203 2) Kim, A & Osterhout, L. (2003). The independence of combinatory semantic processing: Evidence from Event Related Potentials. Journal of Memory and Language 52, p.205-225; 3) Van Herten, M., Kolk, H., and Chwilla, D. (2005) An ERP study of P600 effects elicited by semantic anomalies. Cognitive Brain Research, 22, 241-255 4) Ding, N., Melloni, L., Zhang, H., and Poeppel, D. (2015). Cortical Tracking of Hierarchical Linguistic Structures in Connected Speech. Nature Neuroscience 19(1)
S.1, 7 George Square
15/02/2019 - 2:10pm to 4:00pm
Learning Outcomes: 

After the course, students will:

  • have an understanding of the notions of syntactic structure and syntactic ambiguity          
  • Appreciate a number of experimental techniques that are used to study the detailed time-course of written and spoken language comprehension.
  • Understand and be able to evaluate the main theoretical claims and experimental evidence surrounding the use of grammatical and non-grammatical information in sentence comprehension.
Additional Information: 


100% essay (maximum length 3000 words). A choice of essay topics will be provided.

An electronic copy must be submitted through an own work declaration confirmation form and Turnitin link in Learn by the deadline. The electronic submission allows us to check for plagiarism and word count.


The submission deadline must be observed. Failure to comply with the deadline without good reason will incur mark penalties as follows:

•           Up to 7 calender days, 5 marks per calender day will be deducted

•           More than 7 calender days late a mark of zero will be given