syntactic priming

Some thoughts on Healey et al (2014) failure to find syntactic priming in conversational speech

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In a recent PLoS one article, Healey, Purver, and Howes (2014) investigate syntactic priming in conversational speech, both within speakers and across speakers. Healey and colleagues follow Reitter et al (2006) in taking a broad-coverage approach to the corpus-based study of priming. Rather than to focus on one or a few specific structures, Healey and colleagues assess lexical and structural similarity within and across speakers. The paper concludes with the interesting claim that there is no evidence for syntactic priming within speaker and that alignment across speakers is actually less than expected by chance once lexical overlap is controlled for. Given more than 30 years of research on syntactic priming, this is a rather interesting claim. As some folks have Twitter-bugged me (much appreciated!), I wanted to summarize some quick thoughts here. Apologies in advance for the somewhat HLP-lab centric view. If you know of additional studies that seem relevant, please join the discussion and post. Of course, Healey and colleagues are more than welcome to respond and correct me, too.

First, the claim by Healey and colleagues that “previous work has not tested for general syntactic repetition effects in ordinary conversation independently of lexical repetition” (Healey et al 2014, abstract) isn’t quite accurate.

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Socially-mediated syntactic alignment

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The first step in our OSU-Rochester collaboration on socially-mediated syntactic alignment has been submitted a couple of weeks ago. Kodi Weatherholtz in Linguistics at The Ohio State University took the lead in this project together with Kathryn Campbell-Kibler (same department) and me.

Welcome screen with sound  check from our web-based speech recording experiment.
Welcome screen with sound check from our web-based speech recording experiment.

We collected spoken picture descriptions via Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk to investigate how social attitude towards an interlocutor and conflict management styles affected syntactic priming. Our paradigm combines Read the rest of this entry »

Is my analysis problematic? A simulation-based example

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This post is in reply to a recent question on in ling-R-lang by Meredith Tamminga. Meredith was wondering whether an analysis she had in mind for her project was circular, causing the pattern of results predicted by the hypothesis that she was interested in testing. I felt her question (described below in more detail) was an interesting example that might best be answered with some simulations. Reasoning through an analysis can, of course, help a lot in understanding (or better, as in Meredith’s case, anticipating) problems with the interpretation of the results. Not all too infrequently, however, I find that intuition fails or isn’t sufficiently conclusive. In those cases, simulations can be a powerful tool in understanding your analysis. So, I decided to give it a go and use this as an example of how one might approach this type of question.

Results of 16 simulated priming experiments with a robust priming effect (see title for the true relative frequency of each variant in the population).
Figure 1: Results of 16 simulated priming experiments with a robust priming effect (see title for the true relative frequency of each variant in the population). For explanation see text below.

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HLP Lab is looking for graduate researchers

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The Human Language Processing (HLP/Jaeger) Lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester is looking for PhD researchers to join the lab. Admission is through the PhD program in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences, which offers full five-year scholarship. International applications are welcome.

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Syntactic expectation adaptation (update your beliefs!)

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At long last, Alex Fine‘s paper on syntactic adaptation expectation is about to appear in PLOS One. You can download the pre-proof from our page (the final version will be linked there as soon as it’s available):

  1. Fine, A. B., Jaeger, T. F., Farmer, T. , and Qian, T. 2013. Rapid expectation adaptation during syntactic comprehensionPLoS One.

The paper presents a novel framework that ties together syntactic comprehension and implicit learning. We tie together work on expectation-based sentence understanding, syntactic priming in comprehension, statistical learning, and speaker-specificity in syntactic comprehension.In two self-paced reading studies, we show that readers rapidly adjust their expectations for specific syntactic structures to converge on the statistics of the current environment. They do so based on both previous experience and recent experience within the experiment. Read the rest of this entry »

Erratum: Jaeger and Snider (2013) wrongly summarizes one (non-critical) aspect of the results of Bernolet and Hartsuiker (2010)

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In Jaeger and Snider (2013) we wrongly summarized one aspect of the experiments conducted by Bernolet and Harsuiker (2010) on syntactic priming in the Dutch ditransitive alternation. This does not affect the validity of argument, but should nevertheless be noted.

On p. 71-72, we wrote:

… Bernolet and Hartsuiker investigate the effect of prime surprisal in the Dutch dative alternation. They find stronger priming for more surprising DO primes, but no such effect for PO primes. As a matter of fact, Bernolet and Hartsuiker do not observe any priming for PO primes. 

While the first statement about their experiment is correct, the second statement is wrong. Although Bernolet and Hartsuiker observed stronger priming effects for DOs than POs in Dutch, the effects reached significance for both DO and PO primes. This result still goes with the point we were making (that it’s harder to detect error-sensitivity of syntactic priming for structures that exhibit only small syntactic priming effects to begin with). We are sorry for this mistake and appreciate that Sarah (Bernolet) caught it!


  1. Jaeger, T. F. and Snider, N. (2013). Alignment as a consequence of expectation adaptation: syntactic priming is affected by the prime’s prediction error given both prior and recent experience. Cognition 127(1), 57–83. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.10.013.
  2. Bernolet, S., & Hartsuiker, R. J. (2010). Does verb bias modulate syntactic priming ? Cognition, 114, 455–461. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2009.11.005

Two new HLP lab papers and some thoughts on implicit learning

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I am happy to report on two new HLP lab papers on implicit learning in language and beyond that recently were accepted for publication:

The first paper by Ting Qian is an opinion piece on learning and theories of learning in a world in which evidence is presented sequentially and where deviations from the expected always carry with them ambiguity about the cause of such deviation. So, how do learners figure out how to construct sufficiently adequate (i.e. good in coverage, though not necessarily accurate in terms of assumptions about the causes) causal theories of the world?

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