IRCS Technical Reports Series

Document Type

Thesis or dissertation

Date of this Version

October 1993

Comments

University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research in Cognitive Science Technical Report No. IRCS-93-27.

Abstract

Syntactic ambiguity abounds in natural language, yet humans have no diffculty coping with it. In fact, the process of ambiguity resolution is almost always unconscious. But it is not infallible, however, as example 1 demonstrates.
1. The horse raced past the barn fell.

This sentence is perfectly grammatical, as is evident when it appears in the following context:

2. Two horses were being shown to to a prospective buyer. One was raced past a meadow and the other was raced past a barn.

Grammatical yet unprocessable sentences such as 1. are called 'garden-path sentences.' Their existence provides an opportunity to investigate the human sentence processing mechanism by studying how and when it fails. The aim of this thesis is to construct a computational model of language understanding which can predict processing difficulty. The data to be modeled are known examples of garden path and non-garden path sentences, and other results from psycholinguistics.

It is widely believed that there are two distinct loci of computation in sentence processing: syntactic parsing and semantic interpretation. One longstanding controversy is which of these two modules bears responsibility for the immediate resolution of ambiguity. My claim is that it is the latter, and that the syntactic processing module is a very simple device which blindly and faithfully constructs all possible analyses for the sentence up to the current point of processing. The interpretive module serves as a filter, occasionally discarding certain of these analyses which it deems less appropriate for the ongoing discourse than their competitors.

This document is divided into three parts. The first is introductory, and reviews a selection of proposals from the sentence processing literature. The second part explores a body of data which has been adduced in support of a theory of structural preferences - one that is inconsistent with the present claim. I show how the current proposal can be specified to account for the available data, and moreover to predict where structural preference theories will go wrong. The third part is a theoretical investigation of how well the proposed architecture can be realized using current conceptions of linguistic competence. In it, I present a parsing algorithm and a meaning-based ambiguity resolution method.

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Date Posted: 19 September 2006