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Finding meaning in silence : the comprehension of ellipsis


This dissertation examines the real-time processing and interpretation of Ellipsis. Ellipsis refers to a family of elements that are absent from the input but crucial for the overall interpretation of a sentence. Ellipsis therefore offers a unique opportunity to study the form- meaning correspondence in language comprehension, since the intended meaning is transmitted without recourse to a fully-fledged signal. The studies in this dissertation aimed to determine the meaning that is attributed to silent constituents in auditory sentence comprehension, with an emphasis on Verb-Phrase Ellipsis and Sluicing. Furthermore, the time-course of interpretation computation was examined using a methodology sensitive to online processing (Cross-Modal Priming). Chapter 2 investigated the processing of unaccusative and unergative verbs in Verb-Phrase Ellipsis (e.g. : The dog disappeared in the crowded street fair and the child did too). Chapter 3 examined the interpretation of Sluiced sentences (The handyman threw a book to the programmer, but I don't know which book). Chapter 4 presents neuropsychological evidence on the recovery of meaning in Verb-Phrase Ellipsis. Taken together, these studies indicate that ellipsis is interpreted in real time, as the sentence unfolds, by retrieving the mnemonic representation of the antecedent (the intended meaning provided in the early part of the sentence). The parser only reactivates the syntactically-defined antecedent; no more material than necessary is reconstructed at the ellipsis. However, the meaning assigned to the ellipsis may differ from the antecedent: in Sluicing, the parser might assign a partial or temporarily mismatching interpretation to the ellipsis. Additionally, these findings point to a role of parallelism expectations in the timely postulation and resolution of ellipsis. Lastly, the linguistic properties of Ellipsis were exploited to test specific hypotheses on language representation and processing in normal and disordered language. For instance, Chapter 2 aimed to determine whether traces are represented as silent syntactic phrases during processing and Chapter 4 evaluated aphasic patients' ability to process, in real time, a complex but canonically-ordered construction.

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