Effects of pitch accents in attachment ambiguity resolution

Eun Kyung Lee, Duane G. Watson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous work has found that listeners prefer to attach ambiguous syntactic constituents to nouns produced with a pitch accent (Schafer, Carter, Clifton, & Frazier, 1996). This study examines what factors underlie previously established accent attachment effects by testing whether these effects are driven by a preference to attach syntactic constituents to new or important information (the Syntax Hypothesis) or whether there is a bias to respond to postsentence probe questions with an accented word (the Salience Hypothesis). One of the predictions of the Salience Hypothesis is that selection of accentedwords should be greater when a sentence is complex and processing resources are limited. The results from the experiments presented here show that the probability of listeners' selecting accentedwords when asked about the interpretation of a relative clause varies with sentence type: listeners selected accented words more frequently in long sentences than in short sentences, consistent with the predictions of the Salience Hypothesis. Furthermore, Experiment 4 demonstrates that listeners are more likely to respond to postsentence questions with accented words than with nonaccented words, even when no ambiguity is present, and even when the response results in an incorrect answer. These findings suggest that accent-driven attachment effects found in earlier studies reflect a postsentence selection process rather than a syntactic processing mechanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)262-297
Number of pages36
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Pitch accents
  • Prosody
  • Relative clauses
  • Syntactic processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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