Encoding actions and verbs: Tracking the timecourse of relational encoding during message and sentence formulation

Agnieszka E Konopka* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

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Two experiments tracked the encoding of relational information (actions at the level of the pre-linguistic message and verbs at the level of the sentence) during formulation of transitive event descriptions (e.g., The tiger is scratching the photographer). At what point during message and sentence formulation do speakers encode actions and verbs? Participants described pictures of transitive events in response to neutral questions (What is happening?), agent questions (What is [the agent] doing?), and patient questions (What is the happening with [the patient]?). The agent and patient questions were intended to change the message-level focus of speakers’ responses and to induce priority encoding of the event action and the sentence verb. The questions had a nearly categorical effect on speakers’ choice of sentence form in their responses (characters mentioned in the questions were produced in subject position, as expected) and a strong effect on the time-course of sentence formulation: speakers rapidly directed their gaze to the part of the event needed to encode contextually new, task-relevant information – first the event action and the sentence verb, and then the sentence object. The distribution of fixations during the “verb-encoding” window showed that speakers encode relational information by fixating both event characters. Comparing formulation of sentences describing events with action-informative agents and action-informative patients showed a small preference for fixating the more informative character both immediately after picture onset (message-level encoding) and during the “verb-encoding” window (sentence-level encoding). The results identify action-specific and verb-specific eye movement signatures in message and sentence formulation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1486-1510
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition
Issue number8
Early online date27 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

Many thanks to Annelies van Wijngaarden and student assistants from the Psychology of Language Department (in particular Esther Kroese, Marloes Graauwmans, and Ilse Wagemakers) for help with data collection and processing, and Tess Forest and Antje Meyer for helpful discussions.


  • message and sentence formulation
  • incrementality
  • discourse
  • gaze-speech coordination
  • eye-tracking


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