Information density of encodings: The role of syntactic variation in comprehension


The Uniform Information Density (UID) hypothesis links production strategies with comprehension processes, predicting that speakers will utilize flexibility in encoding in order to increase uniformity in the rate of information transmission, as measured by surprisal (Jaeger, 2010). Evidence in support of UID comes primarily from studies focusing on word-level effects, e.g. demonstrating that surprisal predicts the omission/inclusion of optional words. Here we investigate whether comprehenders are sensitive to the information density of alternative encodings that are more syntactically complex. We manipulated the syntactic encoding of complex noun phrases in German via meaning-preserving pre-nominal and post-nominal modification in contexts that were either predictive or non-predictive. We then used the G-maze reading task to measure online comprehension during self-paced reading. Results were consistent with the UID hypothesis. In predictive contexts, post-nominal encodings elicited a more uniform distribution of processing effort. Conversely, in non-predictive contexts, more uniform effort was found for pre-nominal encodings.

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