Purdue Experimental Linguistics Lab

About the lab

Research in our lab investigates syntax and its interfaces with semantics, discourse information structure, and language processing in production and comprehension. The experimental methods employed include acceptability judgment tasks, structural priming tasks, elicitation tasks, reading and response time measurements, and quantitative corpus analyses. Recent projects have investigated relative clause extraposition in English, resumptive pronoun production in Cantonese, syntax of sentence-final particles in Shanghainese, boundedness of verbal and adjectival predicates in Mandarin, and the effect of motion event typology on production of causative motion expressions in English and Mandarin. For more information, please visit our lab website:

Featured projects (1)

Formal models of grammar aim to describe the implicit knowledge that underlies speakers’ ability to produce well-formed complex sentences. Because such knowledge can only be ascertained indirectly through experimental tasks and observations of language use, it is often unclear how to distinguish the effects of grammatical constraints from the effects of extra-grammatical factors, such as processing difficulty. The current book in progress builds on existing empirical research to develop a framework in which data from various sources can be interpreted to describe grammatical knowledge more accurately. It is shown that some grammatical knowledge is probabilistic, thus challenging commonly-held assumptions in linguistic theory.

Featured research (5)

This book examines a challenging problem at the intersection of theoretical linguistics and the psychology of language: the interpretation of gradient judgments of sentence acceptability in relation to theories of grammatical knowledge. Acceptability judgments constitute the primary source of data on which such theories have been built, despite being susceptible to various extra-grammatical factors. Through a review of experimental and corpus-based research on a variety of syntactic phenomena and an in-depth examination of two case studies, Elaine J. Francis argues for two main positions. The first is that converging evidence from online comprehension tasks, elicited production tasks, and corpora of naturally-occurring discourse can help to determine the sources of variation in acceptability judgments and to narrow down the range of plausible theoretical interpretations. The second is that the interpretation of judgment data depends crucially on the theoretical commitments and assumptions made, especially with respect to the nature of the syntax-semantics interface and the choice of either a categorical or a gradient notion of grammaticality. The theoretical frameworks considered in this book include derivational theories (e.g. Minimalism, Principles and Parameters), constraint-based theories (e.g. Sign-based Construction Grammar, Simpler Syntax), competition-based theories (e.g. Stochastic Optimality Theory, Decathlon Model), and usage-based approaches. The volume shows that while acceptability judgment data are typically compatible with the assumptions of various theoretical frameworks, some gradient phenomena are best captured within frameworks that permit soft constraints-non-categorical grammatical constraints that encode the conventional preferences of language users.
In one type of Relative Clause Extraposition (RCE) in English, a subject-modifying relative clause occurs in a displaced position following the matrix VP, as in: Some options were considered that allow for more flexibility. Although RCE incurs a discontinuous dependency and is relatively infrequent in discourse, previous corpus and acceptability judgment studies have shown that speakers prefer RCE over adjacent ordering when the RC is long in relation to the VP, the subject NP is indefinite, and the main verb is passive/presentative (Francis, 2010; Francis & Michaelis, 2014; Walker, 2013). The current study is the first to relate these conditional preferences to online measures of production. For a spoken production task that required speakers to construct sentences based on visual cues, results showed that the same factors that modulate choice of structure—VP length, RC length, and definiteness of the subject NP—also modulate voice initiation time. That is, when the sentential context warrants a particular structure, that structure becomes easier to produce. Following the approach of MacDonald (2013), we explain these findings in terms of two production biases, one of which favors early placement of shorter, more accessible phrases and the other of which promotes rapid retrieval from memory of the most frequently-used sub-types of a construction.
We used two tasks (elicitation and priming) to ask: whether and how Mandarin differs from English in terms of Path encoding; and how native-language bias based on these differences affects speakers’ sensitivity to Path information in a prime sentence. Our findings support that Mandarin is distinct from English in motion event typology, as complex Path encoding is more available in Mandarin than in English. Moreover, the high codability of Path in Mandarin allows its speakers greater accessibility and attention to the details of Path information, making them more sensitive to conceptual cues in priming of Path than English speakers.
Fedorenko and Gibson (2013) have argued against the continued use of informally collected acceptability judgments as the primary methodology in theoretical syntax and semantics research. We provide further support for their position with data from Mandarin and Turkish-language judgment tasks which examined the acceptability of resumptive pronouns (RPs) in relative clauses. Based on previous studies which relied on informal judgments, we expected that RPs should be permitted in certain types of Mandarin relative clauses, but ungrammatical in comparable Turkish relative clauses. The results failed to replicate this contrast: RPs were more acceptable than expected in Turkish, and less acceptable than expected in Mandarin. Furthermore, the Mandarin Chinese experiment showed an unexpected gradient effect. We argue that these results challenge existing theoretical accounts, support the more widespread adoption of experimental tasks in theoretical linguistics and in second-language research, and consistently support the Filler-Gap Domain complexity ranking as proposed by Hawkins (2004). We use the complexity ranking and its supporting evidence as a case study demonstrating that quantitative data, such as the evidence obtained from formal sentence judgment tasks, are indispensable in the defense or criticism of linguistic theories.
The use of resumptive pronouns in relative clauses appears to be governed by structural complexity in grammar and usage. Resumptive pronoun distributions across languages typically follow the Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy (Keenan and Comrie 1977, Noun Phrase Accessibility and Universal Grammar, Linguistic Inquiry: 8: 63-99): if the grammar allows resumptive pronouns in one position, it also allows them in more deeply embedded positions. Hawkins (2004, Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars, Oxford University Press) predicts a parallel effect in usage: when the grammar permits the option of either resumptive pronoun or gap, resumptive pronouns should be used more often as structural complexity increases. Results of two experiments, an elicited production task and an acceptability judgment task, affirm Hawkins’ prediction for Cantonese: resumptive pronouns were used more often and rated as more acceptable as the complexity of the relative clause increased from subject to direct object to coverb object and from non-possessive to possessive. Furthermore, resumptive pronoun use was apparently not governed by any categorical grammatical constraints on filler-gap dependencies. Resumptive pronouns were sometimes omitted in coverb object relatives, contrary to a proposed adjunct island condition. Implications for theories of grammatical competence are considered.

Lab head

Elaine J. Francis
  • Department of English
About Elaine J. Francis
  • My research deals with syntax and its interfaces with semantics, discourse information structure, and language processing in production and comprehension. Some of my goals are: • to identify the factors that contribute to the realization of grammatical alternations • to explore how processing factors contribute to the development of grammatical conventions • to investigate the nature of grammatical knowledge


Alumni (7)

Charles Tsz-Kwan Lam
  • Purdue University
Joshua D. Weirick
  • Purdue University
John Hitz
  • University of Central Oklahoma
Carol Chun Zheng
  • Purdue University