Research

RESEARCH OVERVIEW:

Across the different projects I am involved in, I seek to understand how linguistic information is cognitively represented, and how those representations support the (seemingly effortless) process of language comprehension. Some of the broad themes of this work include:

  • How is syntactic and discourse structure represented in short-term and long-term memory?
  • How do we access information coded in linguistic and extra-linguistic memory when necessary to support linguistic computation and language comprehension? 
  • How does the organization of linguistic information in memory impact decisions speakers make when producing or understanding language?

To see up-to-date information about projects I’m currently involved with, please visit my Open Science Framework page. Here are some of the projects I have been involved in:

PROCESSING REFLEXIVES:

Reflexive pronouns such as herself and himself in English are subject to very rigid syntactic constraints on their use (e.g.  the Binding Theory), constraints that vary in only limited ways cross-linguistically. We have investigated the degree to which these syntactic constraints guide the incremental comprehension and perception of reflexive pronouns, in English, German, Swedish, and Mandarin Chinese. Work in this project project has shown that comprehenders approximate a search through syntactic structure to identify an antecedent for a reflexive, but that syntactic structure is a violable constraint on antecedent identification. More recently, UMass alumnus Shayne Sloggett‘s research has shown that this search process also interacts with discourse-level constraints such as point of view, with comprehenders preferring to relate reflexive pronouns to entities whose point of view is assumed.

Sloggett, S. (2017). When errors aren’t: How comprehenders selectively violate Binding Theory. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, UMass Amherst.

Dillon, B., Chow, W-Y, & Xiang, M. (2015). The relationship between anaphor features and antecedent retrieval: Comparing Mandarin ziji and ta-zijiFrontiers in Psychology, 6. pdf

Jäger, L., Benz, L., Roeser, J., Dillon, B., & Vasishth, S. (2015). Teasing apart retrieval and encoding interference in the processing of anaphors. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. pdf

Dillon, B., Chow, WY., Wagers, M., Guo, TM., Liu, FQ., & Phillips, C. (2014). The structure-sensitivity of memory access: Evidence from Mandarin long distance reflexives. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. pdf

Dillon, B., Mishler, A., Sloggett, S., & Phillips, C. (2013). Contrasting interference profiles for agreement and anaphora: Experimental and modeling evidence. Journal of Memory and Language, 69(2), 85-103. pdfsupplemental materials.

PROCESSING NOT-AT-ISSUE CONTENT:

In joint work with Lyn Frazier and Charles Clifton, Jr., we have investigated the processing of not-at-issue content, a broad class of linguistic expressions  linguistic expressions such as parentheticals, asides, or expressives (damn!) that supplement the main point or assertion that a speaker makes in a given utterance. This work has looked at how comprehenders chunk linguistic encodings in memory as a function of its (not-)at-issue discourse status, how speakers update the context using not-at-issue material, and how not at-issue material interacts with at-issue material for purposes of linguistic processing.

Dillon, B., Clifton, C., Sloggett, S., & Frazier, L. (under revision). No longer an orphan: Evidence for appositive attachment from sentence comprehension.

Dillon, B., Clifton, C., Sloggett, S., & Frazier, L. (2017). Appositives and their aftermath: Interference depends on at-issue vs. not-at-issue status. Journal of Memory and Language96, 93-109.

Frazier, L., Dillon, B., & Clifton Jr, C. (2017). Together They Stand: Interpreting Not-At-Issue Content. Language and Speech. https://doi.org/10.1177/0023830917714608

Frazier, L, Clifton, C., & Dillon, B. (2015). A note on interpreting damn expressives: Transferring the blame. Language and Cognition, 7(2), 1-14. pdf

Dillon, B., Clifton, C. Jr., & Frazier, L. (2014). Pushed aside: Parentheticals, memory and processing. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29(4), 483-498.

PROCESSING REFERENTIAL AND SYNTACTIC AMBIGUITY:

In more recent work, we have investigated how comprehenders deal with referential ambiguities, which arise when the referent of a pronoun is potentially ambiguous (e.g. Tony told Matthew that he needed to clean the chimney), and structural ambiguities, which arise when a given sentence has more than one possible syntactic analysis (e.g.  I saw the daughter of the colonel who was on the balcony.In recent work we have used ambiguities of these sort to probe the syntactic representations created during comprehension, as well as the mechanisms that create linguistic dependencies in real-time comprehension.

Dillon, B, Andrews, C., Rotello, C. & Wagers, M. (in preparation). A new argument for distinct, co-active parses during language comprehension.

Grant, M., Sloggett, S., & Dillon, B. (submitted). Processing ambiguities in attachment and pronominal reference.