Peter Nelson

Date of Award

Summer 2021

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation



First Advisor

Amit Almor


The distinction between animate and inanimate objects is essential to many cognitive tasks. Research has shown distinct patterns of memory, attention, and language response to animate and inanimate objects. This dissertation examines the effects of noun animacy on sentence processing. I report three psycholinguistic experiments on intransitive constructions, testing how animate and inanimate nouns influence expectations for an intransitive clause. Intransitive verbs fall into types based on thematic role. Unergative verbs assign an Agent role. Unaccusative verbs assign a Theme/Patient role, although a subclass of unaccusative verbs can alternate between intransitive constructions with a Theme/Patient subject and transitive constructions with an Agent subject and Theme/Patient object. Agent roles are active and intentional, corresponding to animate nouns, and Theme/Patient roles are nonvolitional and passive, corresponding to inanimate nouns. I hypothesized that reading sentences with an unexpected intransitive clause (i.e., garden-path sentences) would be easier when animacy and thematic roles matched. Our findings suggest that animacy-thematic associations influence readers’ expectations for an intransitive clause structure. A corpus-based analysis suggests that individual verb biases for inanimate or animate subject nouns modulate these expectations.

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