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The processing of tense

Michael Walsh Dickey, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines how English tense morphology is interpreted by the human language processor. Interpreting tense involves semantic ambiguity resolution: the processor must decide which tense-aspect combination is spelled out by a tense morpheme appearing in a given context. This thesis argues that sentence-level concerns, rather than discourse-level ones, are what drive the processor in resolving this ambiguity. It also argues that the processor makes two separate decisions in interpreting tense, corresponding to the two functional projections associated with it. Chapter 2 looks at the effect of preposed temporal adverbials on the interpretation of AspectP. Previous results have suggested that preposed adverbials signal a new discourse segment, which should override the effects of preceding context on the interpretation of a tense marker. The results of two reading-time experiments disconfirm this prediction for AspectP. Adverbials vary in their effect on AspectP interpretation based on their content, not their position. This is surprising on a view claiming that discourse-level structure drives the interpretation of tense, but is expected if such interpretation proceeds based on the content of material in the sentence. Chapter 3 looks at the interpretation of TenseP. The results of two reading experiments suggest that the processor interprets TenseP when it can determine the telicity of the current sentence. Like the results from chapter 2, these results argue that the processor is guided by sentence-level linguistic structure in its interpretation of tense. Further, the results suggest that the interpretation of TenseP can take place a different moment from the interpretation of AspectP. This dissociation argues in favor of theories in which tense morphemes spell out two semantic elements. Chapter 4 examines the processing of sequence-of-tense (SOT) constructions, in particular what factors guide the processor in resolving the SOT ambiguity. In two questionnaires and one on-line reading study, it finds that discourse simplicity accounts make the wrong predictions regarding readers' preferred interpretations of SOT sentences. Instead, these preferences are better explained by accounts in which structural preferences guide the processor. Chapter 5 summarizes the findings of the dissertation and considers their implications for models of semantic processing and temporal interpretation.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Dickey, Michael Walsh, "The processing of tense" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9960747.