Message formulation and structural assembly: Describing "easy" and "hard" events with preferred and dispreferred syntactic structures

Maartje van de Velde, Antje Meyer, Agnieszka Ewa Konopka

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


When formulating simple sentences to describe pictured events, speakers look at the referents they are describing in the order of mention. Accounts of incrementality in sentence production rely heavily on analyses of this gaze-speech link. To identify systematic sources of variability in message and sentence formulation, two experiments evaluated differences in formulation for sentences describing “easy” and “hard” events (more codable and less codable events) with preferred and dispreferred structures (actives and passives). Experiment 1 employed a subliminal cuing manipulation and a cumulative priming manipulation to increase production of passive sentences. Experiment 2 examined the influence of event codability on formulation without a cuing manipulation. In both experiments, speakers showed an early preference for looking at the agent of the event when constructing active sentences. This preference was attenuated by event codability, suggesting that speakers were less likely to prioritize encoding of a single character at the outset of formulation in “easy” events than in “harder” events. Accessibility of the agent influenced formulation primarily when an event was “harder” to describe. Formulation of passive sentences in Experiment 1 also began with early fixations to the agent but changed with exposure to passive syntax: speakers were more likely to consider the patient as a suitable sentential starting point after cumulative priming. The results show that the message-to-language mapping in production can vary with the ease of encoding an event structure and of generating a suitable linguistic structure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)124-144
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Early online date10 Dec 2013
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014


  • Sentence Planning
  • Incrementality
  • Structural priming
  • Eye-tracking
  • Timecourse of sentence formulation
  • Structural processing


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