The effect of context on noisy-channel sentence comprehension


The process of sentence comprehension must allow for the possibility of noise in the input, e.g., from speaker error, listener mishearing, or environmental noise. Consequently, semantically implausible sentences such as The girl tossed the apple the boy are often interpreted as a semantically plausible alternative (e.g., The girl tossed the apple to the boy). Previous investigations of noisy-channel comprehension have relied exclusively on paradigms with isolated sentences. Because supportive contexts alter the expectations of possible interpretations, the noisy channel framework predicts that context should encourage more inference in interpreting implausible sentences, relative to null contexts (i.e. a lack of context) or unsupportive contexts. In the present work, we tested this prediction in four types of sentence constructions: two where inference is relatively frequent (double object - prepositional object), and two where inference is rare (active-passive). We found evidence that in the two sentence types that commonly elicit inference, supportive contexts encourage noisy-channel inferences about the intended meaning of implausible sentences more than non-supportive contexts or null contexts. These results suggest that noisy-channel inference may be more pervasive in everyday language processing than previously assumed based on work with isolated sentences.