The Effect of Discourse Context on Online Sentence Processing


Information structure describes how the information is packaged within a discourse to optimize information transfer. We addressed the question if and how a discourse context modulates the online processing of German declaratives. Native speakers of German read fictitious stories that depicted a simple action scene of two characters while we recorded event-related brain potentials (ERPs). Two types of discourse contexts (topic vs. neutral) were compared with regard to the processing of declarative canonical subject-before-object (SO) and non-canonical object-before-subject (OS) sentences. The preceding topic context only modulated the processing of OS sentences. This was indicated by a less pronounced positivity around 500 to 900 ms for the topic compared to the neutral context. As supported by previous research we argue that this context-induced effect in the processing of non-canonical sentences reflects reduced processing costs for the integration of the discourse relevant topic information into the current discourse model.

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