Comprehension of double-center embedded relatives in Italian: a case for hierarchical intervention



Object relatives are more difficult to process than subject relatives. Several sentence processing models have been proposed to explain this difference. As double-center embedding relatives contain several long-distance dependencies, they are an ideal configuration to compare sentence processing models. The main aim of the present study was to compare the predictions of the featural Relativized Minimality approach with the ones of other relevant sentence processing models.

57 Italian-speaking healthy adults answered comprehension questions concerning the first, second, or third verb to appear in both double-center embedding and control sentences. Results show that questions concerning the matrix verb of double-center embedding structures were significantly easier and were associated with faster response times than questions concerning the embedded verbs. Furthermore, in object double-center embedding relatives the questions concerning the verb of the most embedded clause were easier than the ones concerning the verb of the intermediate embedded clause.

This pattern of results is consistent with featural Relativized Minimality but cannot be fully explained by other sentence processing models.


sentence processing, object relatives, double-center embedding, Italian, hierarchical intervention


Baayen, Rolf H. 2008. Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics using R. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Baayen, Rolf H., Davidson, Dough J., & Bates, Douglas M. 2008. Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of memory and language, 59(4), 390-412.

Bates, Douglas, Mächler, Martin, Bolker, Ben, & Walker, Steve. 2015. Fitting Linear Mixed-Effects Models Using lme4. Journal of Statistical Software, 67(1), 1–48.

Benjamini, Yoav, & Hochberg, Yosef. 1995. Controlling the false discovery rate: a practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. Journal of the Royal statistical society: series B (Methodological), 57(1), 289-300.

Bever, Thomas G. 1970. The cognitive basis for linguistic structures. In John R. Hayes (ed.), Cognition and the Development of Language, 279-362. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Cecchetto, Carlo, & Donati, Caterina (2015). (Re)labeling, Linguistic Inquiry Monograph. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam, & Miller, George A. 1963. Introduction to the Formal Analysis of Natural Languages. In R. Duncan Luce, Robert R. Bush & Eugene Galanter (ed.), Handbook of Mathematical Psychology, 269- 321. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

De Rosario-Martinez, Helios. 2015. PHIA. Post-hoc interaction analysis (R package v0.2-1). CRAN: The R Foundation for Statistical Computing.

Frazier, Lyn. 1987. Syntactic processing: evidence from Dutch. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 5(4), 519-559.

Frazier, Lyn, & Clifton, Charles J. 1989. Successive cyclicity in the grammar and the parser. Language and Cognitive Processes, 4, 93–126.

Frazier, Lyn, & Flores d’Arcais, Giovanni B. 1989. Filler-driven parsing: A study of gap filling in Dutch. Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 331–344.

Friedmann, Naama, Belletti, Adriana, & Rizzi, Luigi. 2009. Relativized relatives: Types of intervention in the acquisition of A-bar dependencies. Lingua, 119, 67-88.

Gibson, Edward. 1998. Linguistic complexity: Locality of syntactic dependencies. Cognition, 68, 1–76.

Gibson, Edward. 2000. The Dependency Locality Theory: A Distance-Based Theory of Linguistic Complexity. In Alec P. Marantz, Yasushi Miyashita, & Wayne O'Neil (ed.), Image, language, brain: Papers from the first mind articulation project symposium, 94–126. MA: MIT Press.

Gibson, Edward, & Iris Wu, Hsiao-Hung. 2013. Processing Chinese relative clauses in context. Language and Cognitive Processes, 28:1-2, 125-155.

Gordon, Peter C., Hendrick, Randall, & Johnson, Marcus 2001. Memory interference during language processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27(6), 1411–1423.

Gordon, Peter C., Hendrick, Randall, & Johnson, Marcus. 2004. Effects of noun phrase type on sentence complexity. Journal of Memory and Language, 51(1), 97–114.

Grodner, Daniel, & Gibson, Edward. 2005. Consequences of the serial nature of linguistic input. Cognitive Science, 29(2), 261–290.

Hale, John. 2001. A probabilistic Earley parser as a psycholinguistic model. In Second Meeting of the North American Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics.

Hale, John. 2003. The information conveyed by words in sentences. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 32, 101–123.

Hsiao, Franny, & Gibson, Edward. 2003. Processing relative clauses in Chinese. Cognition, 90, 3–27.

Huang, C.-T. James, Li, Y.-H. Audrey, & Li, Yafei. 2009. The syntax of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jäger, Lena, Chen, Zhong, Li, Qiang, Lin, C.-J. Charles, & Vasishth, Shravan. 2015. The subject-relative advantage in Chinese: Evidence for expectation-based processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 79, 97–120. 005

Karlsson, Fred. 2007. Constraints on multiple center-embedding of clauses. Journal of Linguistics, 43(2), 365-392.

King, Jonathan, & Just, Marcel A. 1991. Individual differences in syntactic processing: The role of working memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 30(5), 580–602.

Levy, Roger. 2008. Expectation-based syntactic comprehension. Cognition, 106, 1126–1177.

Miyamoto, Edson T., & Nakamura, Michiko. 2013. Unmet expectations in the comprehension of relative clauses in Japanese. In Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 35, 3074-3079.

R Core Team. 2021. R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria.

Reinhart, Tanya M. 1976. The syntactic domain of anaphora. Doctoral dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Rizzi, Luigi. 1990. Relativized minimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rizzi, Luigi. 1997. The Fine Structure of the Left Periphery. In: Haegeman, Liliane (ed.) Elements of Grammar. Kluwer International Handbooks of Linguistics. Springer, Dordrecht.

Ross, John R. 1967. Constraints on variables in syntax. Ph.D. Thesis, Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Staub, Adrian, Foppolo, Francesca, Donati, Caterina, & Cecchetto, Carlo. 2018. Relative clause avoidance: Evidence for a structural parsing principle. Journal of Memory and Language, 98, 26 - 44,

Traxler, Matthew J., Morris, Robin K., & Seely, Rachel E. 2002. Processing subject and object relative clauses: Evidence from eye movements. Journal of Memory and Language, 47(1), 69–90.

Vasishth, Shravan, Chen, Zhong, Li, Qiang, & Guo, Gueilan. 2013. Processing Chinese Relative Clauses: Evidence for the Subject-Relative Advantage. PLoS ONE 8(10): e77006.

Voeten, Cesko C. 2022. buildmer: Stepwise Elimination and Term Reordering for Mixed-Effects Regression. R package version 2.4.

Yun, Jiwon, Whitman, John, & Hale, John. 2010. Subject-object asymmetries in Korean sentence comprehension. In Stellan Ohlsson and Richard Catrambone (ed.), Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 32(32).




Download data is not yet available.