Searching High and Low: Prosodic Breaks Disambiguate Relative Clauses

Lauren A. Fromont*, Salvador Soto-Faraco, Emmanuel Biau

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


During natural speech perception, listeners rely on a wide range of cues to support comprehension, from semantic context to prosodic information. There is a general consensus that prosody plays a role in syntactic parsing, but most studies focusing on ambiguous relative clauses (RC) show that prosodic cues, alone, are insufficient to reverse the preferred interpretation of sentence. These findings suggest that universally preferred structures (e.g., Late Closure principle) matter far more than prosodic cues in such cases. This study explores an alternative hypothesis: that the weak effect of prosody might be due to the influence of various syntactic, lexical-semantic, and acoustic confounding factors, and investigate the consequences of prosodic breaks while controlling these variables. We used Spanish RC sentences in three experimental conditions where the presence and position (following the first or second noun phrase) of prosodic breaks was manipulated. The results showed that the placement of a prosodic break determined sentence interpretation by changing the preferred attachment of the RC. Listeners natural preference for low attachment (in the absence of break) was reinforced when a prosodic break was placed after the first noun. In contrast, a prosodic break placed after the second noun reversed the preferred interpretation of the sentence, toward high attachment. We argue that, in addition to other factors, listeners indeed use prosodic breaks as robust cues to syntactic parsing during speech processing, as these cues may direct listeners toward one interpretation or another.
Original languageEnglish
Article number96
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


  • syntactic ambiguity
  • prosody
  • relative clause attachment
  • Spanish
  • syntactic parsing


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