Hard to See, the Dark Side Is

Syntactic Anomalies Applied to a Selection of Parsing Models illustrated by the Speech of Master Yoda

Term Paper, 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 Non-interactive Models
2.1 Garden-Path Model
2.1.1 Application to example-sentence

3 Interactive Models
3.1 Referential Theory
3.1.1 Application to example-sentence
3.2 Unrestricted-Race Theory
3.2.1 Application to example-sentence

4 The Role of the Verb
4.1 Understanding Verbs via projections
4.2 Understanding Verbs without projections
4.3 Application to example-sentence

5 Cognitive Grammar
5.1 Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar
5.1.1 Application to example-sentence

6 Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Clear your mind must be, if you are to discover the real villains behind this plot.”[1]

If Star Wars is an important step in the history of film, Master Yoda’s way of speaking is one in the establishment of linguistic awareness beyond linguistic circles. His way of speaking has become a cult over the years and his quotations are widely known, not only among Star Wars fans. Even somebody who has not seen any of the six episodes (so did the author of this paper) is very likely to know to whom sentences like the above-mentioned quotation refer. This is due to the fact that Master Yoda, to whom the sentence can be attributed, has a very unique way of speaking; the syntactic structure underlying his utterances is of a high recognition value.

Yet, they can be seen as syntactic anomalies which are supposed to cause difficulties in understanding, a factor that should counteract the establishment of a widely used way of speaking. But in spite of their seeming impracticability, Yoda’s quotations have kept their status as a popular cult. This is evidence for the fact that listeners are able to understand his utterances very well indeed.

This paper is an attempt to follow the process of understanding sentences, especially sentences containing syntactic anomalies, i.e. inversed sentence structures, in theory, on the basis of a selection of parsing models. Yoda’s quotations will serve as example-sentences and help illustrate the language-processing models that are presented in each chapter. Starting with non-interactive models such as the garden-path theory, other models such as the referential theory will be presented. Special attention will be paid to the role of the verb in the process of understanding sentences. A final solution is provided by an excurse on Langacker’s cognitive grammar. Each model will show a different angle on the influence of context in language processing. By the end of the paper, context will be established as an important factor in understanding syntactic anomalies.

2 Non-interactive Models

“At an end your rule is, and not short enough was it”.[2]

Non-interactive models differ from other models of language processing in the fact that they propose only one source of information. So does the garden-path model.

2.1 Garden-path Model

The garden-path model is a two-stage fixed-choice model. Those two properties condition each other: Fixed choice means that only one structure is created out of the incoming material, even if it is ambiguous. This may lead to errors; garden paths occur when the results of the first stage, which were processed exclusively according to syntactic information, prove incompatible with further information. If that is the case, a second stage, a reanalysis is necessary, in which pragmatic, semantic and thematic information is used to process the sentence within correct structures.

Garden-pathing follows two principles: Minimal attachment says that when incoming material is attached to the phrase-marker, the construction with the fewest nodes possible has to be chosen. Late closure proposes that incoming material should be incorporated into the clause which is currently being processed.

Hence, according to the garden-path theory, syntactic information dominates the parsing process. What happens if a sentence with a syntactic anomaly has to be parsed?

2.2.1 Application to example-sentence

The quotation which precedes paragraph 2 does not only apply to non-interactive models in general, for their “rule” easily comes to an end when the source they rely on proves insufficient, but its first sentence also serves as an example for syntactic anomalies. The structure of the sentence, its word order, is inverted, as can be seen from the following parse trees:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

“At an end your rule is, and not short enough was it” (ibid).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Correct version: Your rule is at an end, and it was not short enough.

In the first sentence, the prepositional phrase at an end is put into the first position, whereas one would expect it after the verb in the last position. In the second sentence, the adjective phrase not short enough and the pronoun it have switched places.

According to the garden-path model, the listener would first rely only on syntactic information in order to understand the sentence. Furthermore, thematic role assignment may only be used in the stage of revision.

Hence, the first indication to understand the sentence would be the prepositional phrase at an end and its syntactic information. Prepositional phrases act as complements or adjuncts of verb phrases and noun phrases. Because English is a head-initial language, we would expect the head of the verb phrase in front of its complement, as can be seen in the second parse tree. Instead, the complement of the VP is in head position of the IP, which counteracts the listener’s syntactic knowledge and leads to a garden path. Further confusion might be caused when following the principle of late closure. As mentioned above, it says that incoming material should be incorporated into the phrase currently processed. In this case, the NP your rule would have to be attached to the PP, which constitutes a contradiction to syntactic knowledge. Hence, this principal is violated.

Revision is necessary. Now pragmatic and semantic information, including knowledge about thematic role assignment can be used to process the sentence.

For example, the pragmatic context might include knowledge about the Star Wars trilogy, which then might lead to an expectation towards an inverted sentence structure, presuming that the phrase in head position is not necessarily the subject of the sentence.

At this point, another parsing mechanism might come into play, the delay model. Like the garden path theory, it is a fixed-choice model. In contrast to it, there is no immediate choice, but processing is delayed until further information is encountered. Usually, the delay model is applied to ambiguous sentences rather than anomalous ones, but it is likely to work here as well.

3 Interactive Models

“Decide you must what to serve them best”.[3]

As can be seen above, syntactic anomalies cause difficulties when processed according to an autonomous model such as the garden-path model. This results from the fact that those models rely on one source of information only in the first place. In contrast to them, interactive models use more than one kind of information and are therefore mostly one-stage models.

The following paragraphs will explore how the above-mentioned quotation, which again represents a syntactic anomaly, could be parsed according to interactive models such as the referential theory and the unrestricted-race model.

3.1 Referential Theory

Referential theory is a fixed-choice one-stage model; due to the fact that ambiguities are solved during processing, no second stage of reanalysis is necessary. Contrary to other interactive models, the information used in parsing is restricted to syntax and discourse knowledge. Syntactic representations are constructed word by word. Alternative syntactic constructions are created in parallel and among them only one is chosen according to context. Altmann and Steedman, who both promote this parsing model, differ between two ways of context-influence; the one described before is called weak interaction. Strong interaction refers to a parsing process not only influenced, but guided by context, so that only one alternative is generated and the parallel construction of syntactic representations does not take place.

Hence, context is the factor which occupies the strongest influence on the parsing process and directs the creation of syntactic representations. How does referential theory deal with syntactic anomalies?


[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0121765/quotes

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0121766/quotes

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0080684/quotes

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Hard to See, the Dark Side Is
Syntactic Anomalies Applied to a Selection of Parsing Models illustrated by the Speech of Master Yoda
University of Leipzig  (Insitut für Anglistik)
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Hard, Dark, Side, Syntactic, Anomalies, Applied, Selection, Parsing, Models, Speech, Master, Yoda
Quote paper
M.A. Claudia Jahn (Author), 2007, Hard to See, the Dark Side Is, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/141653


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