Discourse expectations and relative clause processing

Douglas Roland*, Gail Mauner, Carolyn O'Meara, Hongoak Yun

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


We investigated the role of discourse context in relative clause processing. We first replicated Reali and Christiansen's (2007a) finding that pronominal object relative clauses are easier to process than analogous subject relative clauses (an effect which stands in contrast to previous research on pronominal relative clauses). We then analyzed corpus data to demonstrate that the embedded noun phrase in object relative clauses nearly always has a discourse-old referent, even if the noun phrase is not pronominal, while the referent of the embedded noun phrase in subject relative clauses is typically discourse-new. We then extended the work of Mak et al. (2008), by demonstrating in region-by-region reading that full noun phrase object relative clauses are not more difficult to process than subject relatives when they are preceded by appropriate discourse contexts. Finally, we reanalyzed data from the Dundee Eye-tracking corpus to show that contra Demberg and Keller (2007), naturally occurring object relatives are no harder to process than subject relatives. We conclude that the processing difficulties associated with object as compared to subject relative clauses arises because object relative clauses violate more discourse expectations in typical experimental contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-508
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Apr
Externally publishedYes


  • Constrain-based approach
  • Corpus analysis
  • Discourse
  • Relative clause
  • Sentence processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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