ENS, salle Langevin, 29 rue d'Ulm
Sentence ambiguities have been at the center of the research on language comprehension for some time. For semanticists, these ambiguities have been taken to suggest the existence of different abstract mechanisms that may apply to the same syntactic structure at the interpretation stage. For psycholinguists, semantic ambiguities have provided a tool to analyze the dynamics of sentence parsing: since ambiguities tend to be solved incrementally (i.e. before the end of the sentence), the processing pattern of ambiguous sentences might allow identifying the linguistic and non-linguistic factors that play a role during online comprehension.
This dissertation informs theories of language comprehension by exploring two complementary questions: (1) how are different meanings associated to a single sentence form, and (2) how are we able to access and compute these alternative interpretations during parsing. To address these questions, the present work mainly focuses on the so-called plural ambiguities, which arise by the interaction between certain predicates and their plural arguments. For instance, the sentence Amir and Milica built a sandcastle has a non-distributive, collective, interpretation (i.e. Amir and Milica together built a sandcastle) as well as a distributive one (i.e. Amir and Milica each built a sandcastle). Most linguistic approaches assume that distributive readings are derived from more basic non-distributive interpretations by the application of a covert “distributivity” operator (Link, 1983; Champollion, 2014).
The first part of this dissertation presents two studies that aim to identify the abstract mechanisms underlying the distributive/non-distributive contrast through a priming paradigm. This priming method is then extended to other semantic phenomena (i.e. scope ambiguities) in the second part of the dissertation, where some interactions between plurality and scope phenomena are also tested experimentally. To assess the dynamics of ambiguity resolution, the third part of this work presents a mouse-tracking study designed to establish the features of mouse-trajectories that correlate with decision making and disambiguation. The methodology developed in this study is then used to analyse preliminary data on the processing of plural ambiguous sentences.