Animacy and children’s online processing of restrictive relative clauses.

Macdonald, R. G., Serratrice, L., Brandt, S., Theakston, A., & Lieven, E. Animacy and children’s online processing of restrictive relative clauses. Paper presented at the European Conference on Eye Movements (ECEM) 2017, Wuppertal, Germany. 


Subject-relative clauses (SRCs, “the dog that chased the cat”) are typically processed more easily than object-relative clauses (ORCs, “the dog that the cat chased”), but this difference is diminished by the presence of an inanimate head-noun. We investigated the influence of animacy on children’s online processing of SRC and ORC sentences. Forty-eight children (aged 4;5–6;5) listened to sentences that varied in the animacy of the head-noun (Animate/Inanimate) and the type of relative clause used (SRC/ORC). Concurrently, while eye movements were monitored, participants saw two images depicting the same two agents, carrying out reversed actions (e.g. dog chasing cat/cat chasing dog) and were asked to choose the picture matching the sentence using a game-pad. As expected, children were significantly more accurate with ORCs with an inanimate head-noun rather than an animate head-noun. However, surprisingly, for SRCs, after the onset of the relative clause (“that...”) participants made more looks more quickly to the target in the inanimate rather than animate condition, suggesting greater anticipation for a SRC with inanimate head-nouns. This may be due to surprisal at inanimate objects acting on animates. Regardless of the cause, our results show children’s anticipatory fixations at relative clause-onset do not predict performance.