A content-addressable pointer mechanism underlies comprehension of verb-phrase ellipsis

Andrea E. Martin, Brian McElree

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Interpreting a verb-phrase ellipsis (VP ellipsis) requires accessing an antecedent in memory, and then integrating a representation of this antecedent into the local context. We investigated the online interpretation of VP ellipsis in an eye-tracking experiment and four speed-accuracy tradeoff. experiments. To investigate whether the antecedent for a VP ellipsis is accessed with a search or direct-access retrieval process, Experiments 1 and 2 measured the effect of the distance between an ellipsis and its antecedent on the speed and accuracy of comprehension. Accuracy was lower with longer distances, indicating that interpolated material reduced the quality of retrieved information about the antecedent. However, contra a search process, distance did not affect the speed of interpreting ellipsis. This pattern suggests that antecedent representations are content-addressable and retrieved with a direct-access process. To determine whether interpreting ellipsis involves copying antecedent information into the ellipsis site, Experiments 3-5 manipulated the length and complexity of the antecedent. Some types of antecedent complexity lowered accuracy, notably, the number of discourse entities in the antecedent. However, neither antecedent length nor complexity affected the speed of interpreting the ellipsis. This pattern is inconsistent with a copy operation, and it suggests that ellipsis interpretation may involve a pointer to extant structures in memory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)879-906
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2008


  • Verb-phrase ellipsis
  • Sentence processing
  • Speed–accuracy tradeoff

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