Delogu, Francesca; Crocker, Matthew W.; Drenhaus, Heiner

Teasing apart coercion and surprisal: Evidence from ERPs and eye-movements

Cognition, 161, pp. 46-59, 2017.

Previous behavioral and electrophysiological studies have presented evidence suggesting that coercion expressions (e.g., began the book) are more difficult to process than control expressions like read the book. While this processing cost has been attributed to a specific coercion operation for recovering an event-sense of the complement (e.g., began reading the book), an alternative view based on the Surprisal Theory of language processing would attribute the cost to the relative unpredictability of the complement noun in the coercion compared to the control condition, with no need to postulate coercion-specific mechanisms. In two experiments, monitoring eye-tracking and event-related potentials (ERPs), respectively, we sought to determine whether there is any evidence for coercion-specific processing cost above-and-beyond the difficulty predicted by surprisal, by contrasting coercing and control expressions with a further control condition in which the predictability of the complement noun was similar to that in the coercion condition (e.g., bought the book). While the eye-tracking study showed significant effects of surprisal and a marginal effect of coercion on late reading measures, the ERP study clearly supported the surprisal account. Overall, our findings suggest that the coercion cost largely reflects the surprisal of the complement noun with coercion specific operations possibly influencing later processing stages.