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Activating Event Knowledge

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An increasing number of results in sentence and discourse processing demonstrate that comprehension relies on rich pragmatic knowledge about real-world events, and that incoming words incrementally activate such knowledge. If so, then even outside of any larger context, nouns should activate knowledge of the generalized events that they denote or typically play a role in. We used short stimulus onset asynchrony priming to demonstrate that (1) event nouns prime people (sale–shopper) and objects (trip–luggage) commonly found at those events; (2) location nouns prime people/animals (hospital–doctor) and objects (barn–hay) commonly found at those locations; and (3) instrument nouns prime things on which those instruments are commonly used (key–door), but not the types of people who tend to use them (hose–gardener). The priming effects are not due to normative word association. On our account, facilitation results from event knowledge relating primes and targets. This has much in common with computational models like LSA or BEAGLE in which one word primes another if they frequently occur in similar contexts. LSA predicts priming for all six experiments, whereas BEAGLE correctly predicted that priming should not occur for the instrument–people relation but should occur for the other five. We conclude that event-based relations are encoded in semantic memory and computed as part of word meaning, and have a strong influence on language comprehension.


This article was originally published by Elsevier in Cognition and can be accessed at

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

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