Rapid Syntactic Adaptation in Self-Paced Reading: Detectable, but Only With Many Participants

Grusha Prasad, Tal Linzen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Temporarily ambiguous sentences that are disambiguated in favor of a less preferred parse are read more slowly than their unambiguous counterparts. This slowdown is referred to as a garden path effect. Recent self-paced reading studies have found that this effect decreased over the course of the experiment as participants were exposed to such syntactically ambiguous sentences. This decrease in the magnitude of the effect has been interpreted as evidence that readers calibrate their expectations to the context; this minimizes their surprise when they encounter these initially unexpected syntactic structures. Such recalibration of syntactic expectations, referred to as syntactic adaptation, is only one possible explanation for the decrease in garden path effect, however; this decrease could also be driven instead by increased familiarity with the self-paced reading paradigm (task adaptation). The goal of this article is to adjudicate between these two explanations. In a large between-group study (n = 642), we find evidence for syntactic adaptation over and above task adaptation. The magnitude of syntactic adaptation compared to task adaptation is very small, however. Power analyses show that a large number of participants is required to detect, with adequate power, syntactic adaptation in future between-subjects self-paced reading studies. This issue is exacerbated in experiments designed to detect modulations of the basic syntactic adaptation effect; such experiments are likely to be underpowered even with more than 1,200 participants. We conclude that while, contrary to recent suggestions, syntactic adaptation can be detected using self-paced reading, this paradigm is not very effective for studying this phenomenon.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)1156-1172
    Number of pages17
    JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
    Issue number7
    StatePublished - 2021


    • power analysis
    • replication
    • self-paced reading
    • sentence processing
    • syntactic adaptation

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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