Indeterminacy and coercion effects

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Central to the investigation of the biological and cognitive capacities underlying human language is to determine how hypothetically distinct linguistic and non-linguistic computational systems interact to yield the representation of the meaning of a sentence. The focus of our chapter is on the comprehension of “indeterminate” sentences, that is, sentences seemingly semantically incomplete – albeit grammatical – such as “The man began the book”. While one might understand such a sentence as referring to an event that the man began doing with the book, the actual event cannot be determined. We contend that the interpretation of indeterminate sentences relies on the identification of structurally determined gaps which function to signal higher, non-linguistic cognitive mechanisms to trigger pragmatic inferences. These inferences serve to enrich the output of the linguistic system to give the sentence a meaning fitting with a particular context. Psycholinguistic and neuroimaging (fMRI) data are discussed supporting the view that the source of sentence enrichment is pragmatic – not analytic lexical-semantic decompositions – beyond linguistic computations per se.


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