Many factors are known to influence the inference of the discourse coherence relationship between two sentences. Here, we examine the relationship between two conjoined embedded clauses in sentences like The professor noted that the student teacher did not look confident and (that) the students were poorly behaved. In two studies, we find that the presence of that before the second embedded clause in such sentences reduces the possibility of a forward causal relationship between the clauses, i.e., the inference that the student teacher’s confidence was what affected student behavior. Three further studies tested the possibility of a backward causal relationship between clauses in the same structure, and found that the complementizer’s presence aids that relationship, especially in a forced-choice paradigm. The empirical finding that a complementizer, a linguistic element associated primarily with structure rather than event-level semantics, can affect discourse coherence is novel and illustrates an interdependence between syntactic parsing and discourse parsing.
discourse coherence, causality, complementizers, coordination, sentence comprehension
How to Cite
Rohde, H., Tyler, J. & Carlson, K., (2017) “Form and function: Optional complementizers reduce causal inferences”, Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 2(1): 53. doi: https://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.134