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The Validity of Clausal Processing Strategies at the Discourse Level USPHS

Hurtig, Richard R.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Bulletin
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Subject/Key Words:
United States Public Health Service (USPHS), Discourse Analysis, Language Processing, Psycholinguistics, Verbal Communication


In the last few years, considerable research in psycholinguistics has sought to test the hypothesis that the clause is a relevant segmentation unit in the processing of speech. The current interest in linguistic contexts and discourse analysis has raised the question of the validity of the clausal processing strategy suggested by Bever, Garrett, and Hurtig (1973). They demonstrated that the alternative readings of deep structure ambiguous sentences are available during the processing of a clause but that at the clause boundary only one reading remains available. They argued that such evidence supports a view of speech processing as operating clause by clause. It has, however, been suggested that the use of ambiguous sentences in linguistic argumentation or in the psycholinguistic investigation of speech processing is unjustified since phenomenally such sentences are never ambiguously perceived in context. Two sentence fragment completion experiments are presented to demonstrate that the clausal processing strategy is operative in the processing of an auditory speech signal and that the strategy is also operative in the larger discourse context. The analysis of the latency to completion data support the hypothesis that the clausal processing strategy demonstrated in research on sentences in isolation is also operative in connected discourse. This finding is consistent with the functional interactionist model of language proposed by Bever (1970) and Fodor, Bever, and Garrett (1974). Thus the notion of interactionism can be extended to account for discourse phenomena by characterizing the relationship of sentence grammar, discourse grammar, and the psychological processes operative in the encoding of sentences and discourses in the following way: The sentence (clause) is the on-line perceptual unit while the discourse (proposition/idea set/ logical event space) is the unit of cognitive (semantic) memory. That is, the discourse is the object of analysis at the cognitive organizational level while the sentence (syntactic structure) is the object of analysis at the production/comprehension level. Such an hypothesis thereby treats the research on sentences and discourse in linguistics as well as psychology as interactive models of the various subcomponents of a total linguistic-cognitive system. (18pp.)

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