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Paying attention to attention: Perceptual priming effects on word order

ABSTRACT Two experiments are reported which examine how manipulations of visual attention affect adult speakers' linguistic choices regarding word order and verb use when describing simple visual scenes. Participants in Experiment 1 were presented with scenes designed to elicit the use of one of two perspective verbs (e.g., "A dog is chasing a man"/"A man is running from a dog"). Speakers' visual attention was manipulated by preceding the display with a crosshair positioned on one or the other character. Cross-hair position affected word order and verb choice in the expected direction. Experiment 2 replicated this effect with a subliminal attention-capture cue, and results were further extended to the order within conjoined noun phrases in sentential subjects ("A cat and dog are growling…"). The findings have important implications for incremental theories of sentence planning and suggest some specifics for how joint-attention might serve as a useful cue to children learning verbs.

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May 20, 2014