Two new grants for the lab!

We just received an Innovation Grant for Inclusive Research Excellence, to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic influences language comprehension throughout society, in an exciting ongoing project with our fabulous colleagues Rachel Ostrand, Dan Kleinman, and Adam Morgan!

We also received a Yankelovich Center Book Manuscript/Grant Proposal Improvement Grant to, well, improve a grant that’s to be submitted soon. Wish us luck!

LCL @ CogSci 2020

The lab will virtually go to CogSci, presenting

Sheer Time Spent Expecting or Maintaining a Representation Facilitates Subsequent Retrieval during Sentence Processing

by Hossein Karimi, Michele Diaz & Eva Wittenberg.

Abstract: Previous research has shown that modified noun phrases (henceforth NPs) are subsequently retrieved faster than non-modified NPs. This effect is often called the “semantic complexity effect”. However, little is known about its mechanisms and underlying factors. In this study, we tested whether this effect is truly caused by the semantic information added by the modification, or whether it can be explained by the sheer amount of time that the processor spends expecting or maintaining an NP in the encoding phase. The results showed that time spent expecting or maintaining an NP can explain the effect over and above semantic and/or syntactic complexity. Our results challenge the current memory-based mechanisms for the modification effect such as the “distinctiveness” and “head-reactivation” accounts, and offer new and valuable insight into the memory processes during sentence comprehension.

In German comes the verb not always last!

It doesn’t even always come second when it should. Why?

In a new book chapter, we explore linguistic serialization options, specifically, topic and frame-setter expressions, and verbs in German, English, and Turkish! Fun experiments involving Playmobil™ included.

Wiese, Heike, Oncu, Mehmet Tahir, Muller, Hans G., Eva Wittenberg(2020). Verb Third in spoken German: A natural order of information, in: Woolfe et al. (eds). Rethinking Verb Second, ch. 29, pp.682-699. Oxford University Press.

Two grants for the lab

While in the grand scheme of things, this is of course totally irrelevant, we are still happy to share some good news for a change:

So: Good news for our (temporarily closed) lab: Catherine received a Friends of the International Center summer grant to conduct research on Zhoushanese, a Chinese dialect; and Eva received a Division of Social Sciences research grant to investigate counterfactuals (like, “If I had bought toilet paper in February, I would have one fewer worry right now”).

Stay safe and healthy everyone!

Special Guest: Hugh Rabagliati (Edinburgh)

The Language Comprehension Lab is thrilled to announce a very special guest: Hugh Rabagliati (Edinburgh) will talk at our lab meeting from 2:15-3pm on March 6th (AP&M 4452). 

All are welcome!

Learning dimensions of meaning
Words such as ‘but’ carry content that does not fit neatly into the traditional distinction between expressed and implicated meanings. This content is often abstract, it’s meta-linguistic, and it’s hard to describe: indeed, there’s still a messy debate about what sort of dimension of meaning ‘but’ actually carries. Yet anecdotally at least, learning to use these words does not appear to present much of a challenge for children: At least by the age of three, they not only say the word ‘but’ frequently, they use it appropriately, too. Here, however, I’ll present data that this early competence at production masks a striking difficulty at interpreting its meaning during comprehension. Experiments with both preschoolers and statistical language models suggest that these failures to comprehend ‘but’ arise from a difficulty inferring the concrete implications of a Question Under Discussion. Children’s struggles with ‘but’ may thus be part of a broader difficulty generating alternatives, with implications for our understanding of children’s semantic and pragmatic interpretation.

See you at CUNY2020!

The lab will present two posters at the CUNY Sentence Processing Conference:

  • Wampler, Joshua & Wittenberg, Eva: Conceptual parallels between event and object reference in English: A new paradigm shows that demonstratives refer to more complex events
  • Karimi, Hossein, Diaz, Michele, & Wittenberg, Eva: Explaining away the ease of retrieving “alleged Venezuelan communists”: Attention and time spent, not semantic complexity alone, predict reading times

See you in Amherst in March!

New: Amsterdam Colloquium Proceedings paper

Our paper “Fixing de Morgan’s law in counterfactual antecedents” is now available as part of the Proceedings of the 22nd Amsterdam Colloquium here!


Classical semantics for counterfactuals are based on a notion of comparative similarity.
These semantics are intensional, hence they predict that logically equivalent clauses can
be substituted in counterfactuals salva veritate. A recent truth-value judgment study by
Ciardelli, Zhang, and Champollion ([6]; CZC) appears to challenge both the idea that comparative similarity plays a role in counterfactual semantics and the prediction that logical
equivalents are substitutable. CZC account for their data via an inquisitive semantics for
disjunction and a semantics for counterfactuals that does not exploit the standard similarity algorithm. We report on a study consisting of two experiments that start from CZC’s
general idea, but use a simpler scenario, manipulate negation more systematically, and add
an extra task based on the selection of pictures. Our results replicate the differences found
by CZC, but they also suggest that the effect is linked to the presence of overt negation
rather than disjunction. We conclude that (i) inquisitive disjunction is neither necessary
nor sufficient to account for the problem in full generality, and (ii) the evidence does not
encourage rejecting a similarity semantics.

New paper in Language & Linguistics Compass!

Angela He (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Eva have a new paper on the acquisition of event nominals and light verb constructions in Language & Linguistics Compass:

Abstract. In language acquisition, children assume that syntax and semantics reliably map onto each other, and they use these mappings to guide their inferences about novel word meanings: For instance, at the lexical level, nouns should name objects and verbs name events, and at the clausal level, syntactic arguments should match semantic roles. This review focuses on two cases where canonical mappings are broken—first, nouns that name event concepts (e.g., “a nap”) and second, light verb constructions that do not neatly map syntactic arguments onto semantic roles (e.g., “give a kiss”). We discuss the challenges involved in their acquisition, review evidence that suggests a close connection between them, and highlight outstanding questions.


Two LCL grad students will present their work at the upcoming California Meeting on Psycholinguistics (CAMP) at UC Santa Cruz:

  • Catherine Arnett & Eva Wittenberg: Conceptual effects of Verbal Reduplication in Mandarin Chinese (poster on Saturday, October 26)
  • Joshua Wampler & Eva Wittenberg: Doing thus and so: Event referential expressions and referent complexity (talk on Sunday, October 27)

Congratulations, Catherine and Josh!