"The more deletions and the more insertions you make, the less likely it will be you infer that they meant something else," Gibson says. When readers have to make one such change to a sentence, as in the ice cream example above, they think the original version was correct about 50 percent of the time. But when people have to make two changes, they think the sentence is correct even more often, about 97 percent of the time.
Thus the sentence, "Onto the cat jumped a table," which might seem to make no sense, can be made plausible with two changes one deletion and one insertion so that it reads, "The cat jumped onto a table." And yet, almost all the time, people will not infer that those changes are needed, and assume the literal, surreal meaning is the one intended.
This finding interacts with another one from the study, that there is a systematic asymmetry between insertions and deletions on the part of listeners.
"People are much more likely to infer an alternative meaning based on a possible deletion than on a possible insertion," Gibson says.
Suppose you hear or read a sentence that says, "The businessman benefitted the tax law." Most people, it seems, will assume that sentence has a word missing from it "from," in this case and fix the sentence so that it now reads, "The businessman benefitted from the tax law." But people will less often think sentences containing an extra word, such as "The tax law benefitted from the businessman," are incorrect, implausible as they may seem.
Another strategy people use, the researchers found, is that when presented with an increasing proportion of seemingly nonsensical sentences, they actually infer lower amounts of "noise" in the language. That means people adapt when processing language: If every sentence in a longer sequence seems silly, people are reluctant to think all the statements must be wrong, and hunt for a meaning in those
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology