Processing Chinese relative clauses in context

Edward Gibson*, H. H.Iris Wu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Citations (Scopus)


This paper presents a self-paced reading experiment comparing the processing of subject-extracted relative clauses (SRCs) and object-extracted relative clauses (ORCs) in supportive contexts in Chinese. It is argued that lack of a consistent pattern in the literature for the comparison between Chinese SRCs and ORCs is due to potential temporary ambiguity in these constructions in null contexts. By placing the materials in contexts biased towards a relative clause (RC) interpretation, we limit the effects of temporary ambiguity. The results of the experiment demonstrate that SRCs are read more slowly than ORCs in supportive contexts. These results provide evidence for working memory-based sentence processing theories whereby processing difficulty increases for connecting sentence elements that are further apart. Some convergent evidence that strengthens these conclusions comes from recent research on aphasic populations where a dissociation between English and Chinese RC processing has been revealed: whereas English aphasic patients have more difficulty with ORCs and Chinese aphasic patients have more difficulty with SRCs (Su, Lee, & Chung, 2007). Taken together, these results support the idea that sentence processing is constrained by working memory limitations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)125-155
Number of pages31
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 2013 Jan


  • Relative clause
  • Sentence processing
  • Syntactic complexity
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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