"A Cruel King" Is Not the Same as "A King Who Is Cruel": Modifier Position Affects How Words Are Encoded and Retrieved From Memory

Hossein Karimi, Michele Diaz, Fernanda Ferreira

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


We examined whether the position of modifiers in English influences how words are encoded and subsequently retrieved from memory. Compared with premodifiers, postmodifiers might confer more perceptual significance to the associated head nouns, are more consistent with the "given-before-new" information structure, and might also be easier to integrate because the head noun is available before the modifications are encountered. In 4 experiments, we investigated whether premodified (the cruel and merciless king), and postmodified (the king who was cruel and merciless) noun phrases (henceforth, NPs) could induce variations in ease of subsequent retrieval. In Experiments 1, 2, and 3, participants used more pronouns (he), as opposed to full descriptions (the king) to refer to postmodified NPs than to unmodified competitors, but pronominal reference to premodified NPs and unmodified competitors did not differ, suggesting that postmodified NPs are more accessible in memory. When the data from all 3 experiments were combined, we also observed significantly more pronominal reference to post- than to premodified NPs, as well as a greater increase in pronominal reference rates between postmodified NPs and unmodified competitors than between premodified NPs and unmodified competitors. In Experiment 4, words following critical pronouns were read faster when the pronouns referred to modified than to unmodified NPs, and also when the pronouns referred to post- rather than premodified NPs. Taken together, our results show enhanced retrieval facilitation for postmodified NPs compared with premodified NPs. These results are the first to demonstrate that the linear position of modifications results in measurable processing cost at a subsequent point. The results have important implications for memorybased theories of language processing, and also for theories assigning a central role for discourse status and information structure during sentence processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
StateAccepted/In press - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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