Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Master of Science




Dr. Ken McRae


People’s ability to understand language is influenced by numerous factors, one of which is grammatical aspect. The present study focused on whether hearing the imperfective aspect (“The man was slicing the vegetables”; ongoing action) versus the perfective aspect (“The man had sliced the vegetables”; completed action) affects the activation of the mental representation of an outcome (e.g., a sliced carrot) and of the instrument used for a specific action (e.g., a knife for slicing). We conducted a visual-world paradigm eye-tracking study to investigate moment-by-moment language understanding (Heuttig et al., 2011). Participants listened to sentences such as those above while viewing four pictures on a computer screen. Each trial contained one picture depicting the instrument employed for the action mentioned in the sentence (a knife), one depicting the patient that is being acted upon (a carrot), and two unrelated distractors (a basket and a present). We measured the time course of participants’ eye-movements to the pictures, as well as the duration of their fixations. Overall there was an increase in looks to the instruments for the imperfective over the perfective in the time period between the verb and the noun. However, there was no increase in looks to the patient in the perfective over the imperfective. Our results demonstrate that people are sensitive to grammatical aspect as the sentence unfolds, including as the verb is being heard. This suggests that aspect dynamically influences how people interpret and process events.