Prosodic and individual influences on the interpretation of "only"

Author(s): Rose Hurley and Jason Bishop


This study investigates factors that influence the interpretation of ambiguous sentences containing the word ‘‘only”. When “only” appears preverbally in simple SVO constructions, it can be interpreted as associating with the direct object, the verb, or the entire verb phrase. An auditory sentence completion task was used to probe native-speaking English listeners for overall biases in the interpretation of “only”, as well as the influence of accentuation and individual differences on the extent of any such biases. Results show a strong preference for “only” to associate with the direct object overall, although this preference is reduced when the direct object is less (relatively) prominent. Finally, the effect of accentuation was itself modulated by individual differences related to cognitive processing style.