The Influence of Definiteness on Predictions during Discourse Comprehension: an EEG Study

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Investigations into predictive language processing have demonstrated that features present on the article, such as gender, can induce re-evaluation of upcoming predictions. The discourse status of a referent, manipulated through the definiteness of the referent, can also impact the way predictive processing occurs. We investigated if the definiteness of the article would influence whether prediction re-evaluation occurs - under the assumption that definite articles signal a more salient referent in the discourse model compared to indefinite articles. Evidence for a possible effect of definiteness was suggested from previous research by Fleur and colleagues (2019). We addressed this question in an event-related potential study (N= 48) with pre-registered data acquisition and analyses, manipulating the definiteness of article-noun combinations. Participants read mini-stories that suggested either a definite or indefinite noun phrase. This expectation was subsequently confirmed or disconfirmed based on the definiteness of the presented noun phrase. We observed an enhanced negativity (N400) for articles that were unexpected compared to expected. We also observed an interaction of definiteness and expectancy for nouns that followed unexpectedly definite articles, eliciting larger positive deflections compared to unexpectedly indefinite articles. Pre-registered Bayesian analyses did not yield convincing evidence for the interaction of definiteness and expectancy at the article. Definiteness of the article does not appear to induce the re-evaluation of upcoming predictions, but does impact the way predictions are handled at the moment of confirmation/disconfirmation, i.e. at noun onset.
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