Master of Science
Before-initial sentences are thought to be more difficult to comprehend than after-initial sentences because they structurally mismatch the temporal order of real-world events (Münte et al., 1998). Although event knowledge is known to affect how people understand before/after-initial sentences, little is known about the role of language knowledge in comprehending these sentences. A corpus analysis of before/after-initial sentences revealed that before typically is paired with a pronoun (Before he…) whereas after is paired with verb-ing (After leaving…). Participants' eyes were tracked while they read Before/After-pronoun/verbing sentences. Reading times did not match the corpus statistics. The beginning of verbing-sentences was read faster than pronoun-sentences regardless of whether they began with before or after. Reading times were similar for before- and after-initial sentences. The results suggest that when people read natural sounding sentences, they do not have difficulty with sentences in which the order of events mismatches real world temporal order.
Summary for Lay Audience
When talking about our daily experiences, we use words like before and after to describe how and when events happened. For example, you may say something like “Before I went to the movie theatre, I had dinner at a fancy restaurant ”. Previous studies found that sentences beginning with before are harder for people to understand than sentences beginning with after (Münte et al., 1998). It is thought that before-sentences are hard to understand because the written order of events (Before I went to the movie theatre, I had dinner at a fancy restaurant) does not match the order that the events actually occurred (I had dinner at a fancy restaurant [before] I went to the movie theatre). When we read, we use our knowledge about how language is typically structured and used (i.e., language knowledge) to understand written text. For the current study, our goal was to understand how language knowledge affects the comprehension of sentences beginning with before and after. In Study 1, we analyzed 40,000 sentences beginning with before and after to understand how they are usually structured in English. We found that in before-sentences, before is usually followed by a pronoun (e.g., Before she graduated…), and in after-sentences, after is usually followed by a verb ending in -ing (e.g., After graduating…). In Study 2, we investigated how Before/After-pronoun and Before/After-verbing sentences are read and understood. Participants read Before/After-pronoun and Before/After-verbing sentences while their eye movements were tracked with a camera. We found that the beginning of verbing-sentences was read faster than pronoun-sentences regardless of whether they began with before or after. Overall, the results suggest that when people read natural sounding sentences, they do not have difficulty understanding sentences where the written order of events does not match the order of events in the real world.
Henderson, Kimberley R., "Investigating the language of time: Evaluating the use and comprehension of before and after" (2023). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9698.