Processing covert dependency: An eye-tracking study of scope interpretations of embedded Wh-questions in Mandarin

Deran Kong, Yu Yin Hsu (Corresponding Author)

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


Non-local dependency in Mandarin wh-questions has been extensively researched in theoretical linguistics, but it remains an under-studied topic in the field of language processing. Unlike languages that require wh-movement to form wh-questions, Mandarin is a wh-in-situ language, and hence is generally assumed to require a covert dependency between a wh-phrase and its scope-bearing position. Mandarin therefore provides an ideal linguistic environment in which to study not only cognitive-processing mechanisms, but also how different types of non-local dependency, especially covert dependency, can be handled by readers. This paper investigates the processing of such covert non-local dependency in multiple embedded clauses, that is, multiple complementizer phrases (CPs). In wh-in-situ sentences with multiple CPs, the wh-phrases’ scope varies according to the types of verbs and their embedded clauses. Based on the subcategorization of clausal verbs, we designed four experimental conditions: double-embedded low scope, double-embedded high scope, double-embedded ambiguous scope, and long distance in pivotal construction. According to memory-based and distance-based language processing theories, the low-scope condition should be easier to process than the high-scope one, because the former has a shorter linear distance than the latter when forming dependencies; and pivotal construction should be easier to process than high-scope embedded clauses, because the former has a shorter structural distance. In cases where both low- and high-scope interpretations are possible, we aim to determine whether readers exhaust every potential interpretation during comprehension, or adopt a ‘good-enough’ approach to obtaining an interpretation via an easier and less costly process. To this end, we will adopt the eye-tracking technique that allows us to obtain fine-grained reading-time data, which can be used to compare processing across conditions. The results will contribute to understanding human readers’ mechanisms for processing covert dependency and resolving scope ambiguity in wh-in-situ languages.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0285873
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2023


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