Lemke, Tyll Robin; Reich, Ingo; Schäfer, Lisa; Drenhaus, Heiner

Predictable words are more likely to be omitted in fragments – Evidence from production data

Frontiers in Psychology, 12, pp. 662125, 2021.

Instead of a full sentence like Bring me to the university (uttered by the passenger to a taxi driver) speakers often use fragments like To the university to get their message across. So far there is no comprehensive and empirically supported account of why and under which circumstances speakers sometimes prefer a fragment over the corresponding full sentence. We propose an information-theoretic account to model this choice: A speaker chooses the encoding that distributes information most uniformly across the utterance in order to make the most efficient use of the hearer’s processing resources (Uniform Information Density, Levy and Jaeger, 2007). Since processing effort is related to the predictability of words (Hale, 2001) our account predicts two effects of word probability on omissions: First, omitting predictable words (which are more easily processed), avoids underutilizing processing resources. Second, inserting words before very unpredictable words distributes otherwise excessively high processing effort more uniformly. We test these predictions with a production study that supports both of these predictions. Our study makes two main contributions: First we develop an empirically motivated and supported account of fragment usage. Second, we extend previous evidence for information-theoretic processing constraints on language in two ways: We find predictability effects on omissions driven by extralinguistic context, whereas previous research mostly focused on effects of local linguistic context. Furthermore, we show that omissions of content words are also subject to information-theoretic well-formedness considerations. Previously, this has been shown mostly for the omission of function words.