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Title: Semantic and syntactic effects on double prepositional phrase ordering across the lifespan
Authors: Marblestone, Karen Lynn
Keywords: Indo-European Languages
Germanic Languages
Issue Date: 2007
Publisher: University of Southern California
Abstract: When two or more prepositional phrases (PP) follow a verb in English, speakers can vary their order (e.g., John spoke with his mother on the phone. John spoke on the phone with his mother.). Previous research has established that syntactic (PP length) and lexical (prepositions and/or verbs are dependent on each other for correct interpretation) preferences influence PP ordering. Sentences with shorter PPs first and/or dependent PPs adjacent to the verb are easier to process and therefore more frequent (Hawkins, 2000). This study determined how these different elements — syntax, lexicon and processing load — interact to establish PP order. Three experiments examined double PP sentences with varying lengths (zero-, one-, and four-word differences) and dependencies (one PP was dependent and one PP was independent, or both PPs were independent). Each task had a different processing load, from a Sentence Construction task to a Simple Repetition task, to a Difficult Repetition task which had an intervening distracter Dual Component task. Younger and older adults participated in the experiments to investigate whether age-related memory differences resulted in different ordering preferences or recall ability. The results across all experiments reveal a preference to have lexicallydependent elements ordered next to the verb, with the preference increasing as task demands increased. In the Simple Repetition task, when the dependent PP was four words longer, older adults had better recall if the dependent PP was adjacent to the verb while the younger adults did not show ordering effects. Then, in the Dual Component task, both populations often incorrectly repeated sentences so that the dependent PP was next to the verb. Therefore, as task demands increase, dependency ordering becomes increasingly important, with older adults showing greater effects than younger adults. The results revealed that length ordering influenced sentence recall, but did not override dependency ordering. Participants showed short first-ordering preferences in the sentences where there were: (1) no lexical dependencies; or (2) the shorter PPs were also dependent. This finding suggests that both length and dependency ordering interact to make sentences easier to remember, especially if both preferences can be met.
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