Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Meredith M. Tamminga

Second Advisor

David D. Embick


This dissertation examines the processing and mental representation of the sociolinguistic variable ING (thinking~thinkin'). Sociolinguists have asked questions about the locus of the ING variable using naturalistic speech data, which has resulted in a debate on whether the variable is phonological or morphological. These accounts of ING are not well-defined, and it is hard to isolate these representational properties in conversational data.

I propose that locus of variation questions can be thought of as questions about the mental representation of variation, and that it would be fruitful to explore them using a highly-controllable tool from psycholinguistic research: primed lexical decision experiments. This tool is used to show that semantic, phonological, and morphological aspects of representation facilitate processing in different ways. I integrate sociolinguistic knowledge of variable ING with psycholinguistic knowledge on researching mental representations to ask: how are the socially meaningful variants -ing and -in' mentally represented, and which aspects of shared representation contribute to how they are processed?

Based on a framework of relevant aspects of representation, I establish a baseline understanding of the mental representation of -ing and -in' across six experiments. Chapter 4 shows that -ing and -in' prime both themselves and each other in words with unrelated stems (e.g. jumping-thinking), and uncovers an asymmetrical priming pattern between -ing and -in' targets; -in'-in' prime-target pairs enjoy a processing boost over -ing-ing, -in'-ing, and -ing-in' pairs. Chapter 5 finds that this "-in' boost'" is temporally weak. Chapter 6 establishes that surface phonology does not contribute to the -in' boost. Chapter 7 shows that the -in' boost is insensitive to shared representation between prime-target stems.

The results show robust and replicable affix priming for -ing and -in'. They also show a processing difference between the variants, and demonstrate properties of the -in' boost. Taken together, the -in' boost can be interpreted under a representation-based account, which suggests that -ing is the underlying phonological form, and that this can change to -in' via application of a phonological rule. Finally, I propose future avenues of research that test this account and elaborate our understanding of the mental representation of variable ING.