The role of default constructions in the processing of mismatch: The case of possessive free relatives
Townsend and Bever (2001) and Ferreira (2003) argue that simple templates representing the most commonly used orderings of arguments within a clause (e.g., NP-V-NP = Agent-Action-Patient) are used early in sentence comprehension to derive a preliminary interpretation before a full parse is completed. Sentences which match these templates (e.g., active sentences, subject clefts) are understood quickly and accurately, while sentences which deviate from the templates (e.g. passive sentences, object clefts) require additional processing to arrive at the correct interpretation. The present study extends the idea of canonical templates to the domain of noun phrases. I report on two experiments showing that possessive free relative clauses in English, which involve a non-canonical ordering of the head noun, are more difficult to understand than canonically headed noun phrases. I propose two reasons for this finding: (1) possessive free relatives deviate from the canonical template for interpreting noun phrases; and (2) the formal cues for interpreting possessive free relatives are relatively subtle. More generally I suggest that canonical templates help constrain mismatch in language by making certain kinds of mismatches costly for language users. Finally, I argue that evidence for canonical templates fits best within a parallel-architecture, constructionist theory of grammar.