Sikos, Les; Greenberg, Clayton; Drenhaus, Heiner; Crocker, Matthew W.

Information density of encodings: The role of syntactic variation in comprehension

Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society(CogSci 2017), pp. 3168-3173, Austin, Texas, USA, 2017.

The Uniform Information Density (UID) hypothesis links production strategies with comprehension processes, predicting that speakers will utilize flexibility in encoding in order to increase uniformity in the rate of information transmission, as measured by surprisal (Jaeger, 2010). Evidence in support of UID comes primarily from studies focusing on word-level effects, e.g. demonstrating that surprisal predicts the omission/inclusion of optional words. Here we investigate whether comprehenders are sensitive to the information density of alternative encodings that are more syntactically complex. We manipulated the syntactic encoding of complex noun phrases in German via meaning-preserving pre-nominal and post-nominal modification in contexts that were either predictive or non-predictive. We then used the G-maze reading task to measure online comprehension during self-paced reading. The results are consistent with the UID hypothesis. Length-adjusted reading times were facilitated for pre-nominally modified head nouns, and this effect was larger in non-predictive contexts.