How do people interpret implausible sentences?

Zhenguang G. Cai*, Nan Zhao, Martin J. Pickering

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


People sometimes interpret implausible sentences nonliterally, for example treating The mother gave the candle the daughter as meaning the daughter receiving the candle. But how do they do so? We contrasted a nonliteral syntactic analysis account, according to which people compute a syntactic analysis appropriate for this nonliteral meaning, with a nonliteral semantic interpretation account, according to which they arrive at this meaning via purely semantic processing. The former but not the latter account postulates that people consider not only a literal-but-implausible double-object (DO) analysis in comprehending The mother gave the candle the daughter, but also a nonliteral-but-plausible prepositional-object (PO) analysis (i.e., including to before the daughter). In three structural priming experiments, participants heard a plausible or implausible DO or PO prime sentence. They then answered a comprehension question first or described a picture of a dative event first. In accord with the nonliteral syntactic analysis account, priming was reduced following implausible sentences than following plausible sentences and following nonliterally interpreted implausible sentences than literally interpreted implausible sentences. The results suggest that comprehenders constructed a nonliteral syntactic analysis, which we argue was predicted early in the sentence.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105101
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language

User-Defined Keywords

  • Implausible sentences
  • Semantic interpretation
  • Structural priming
  • Syntactic analysis
  • Syntactic prediction


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