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Predicting the damn referent: How comprehenders rapidly retrieve the speaker’s attitude when processing negative expressive adjectives

Camilo Rodriguez Ronderos


Theoretical accounts of negative expressives such as damn have ascribed two main properties to this type of adjectives, namely that they are typically speaker-oriented, and that they can be flexible with regards to their syntactic attachment. However, it is not clear what this means during online sentence processing. For example, is it effortful for comprehenders to derive the speaker’s negative attitude conveyed by an expressive adjective, or is it a rapid, automatic process? And do comprehenders understand the speaker’s attitude regardless of the expressive’s syntactic position? The current work provides first evidence supporting theoretical claims by investigating the incremental processing of Italian negative expressive adjectives. In an eye-tracking study, we show that expressive content is rapidly integrated with information about the speaker’s attitude, resulting in the prediction of an upcoming referent, regardless of the expressive’s syntactic realization. We argue that comprehenders use expressives as an ostensive cue that allows for automatic retrieval of the speaker’s negative attitude.