Late closure in a sentence

”Late Closure” is a language-universal principle which, with the principle of minimal attachment and the ‘’active filler strategy’’, determines people’s initial analysis of (temporarily) ambiguous sentences, according to the garden-path model.


The garden-path model is the most important modular account of syntactic ambiguity. In modular accounts, unlike in interactive ones, only information about the syntactic structure can be used immediately to adopt a single analysis in (temporarily) ambiguous sentences


On the other hand, non-structural sources of information such as semantics, context, and frequency of the structures are employed during later stages of processing either to confirm or contradict the original analysis which, in this second case, has to be reanalysed.


‘The girl called by her mother didn’t reply’.


  1. a) Simplified tree structure of the main clause analysis according to which ‘called’ is in the main clause.
  1. b) Simplified tree structure of the reduced relative analysis according to which ‘called’ introduces the relative clause and ‘didn’t reply’ is the main verb

At ‘called’ the relative analysis requires more nodes than the main clause analysis, so the main clause is initially adopted since, according to minimal attachment, ‘the processor incorporates an ambiguous phrase into the preceding syntactic tree structure using the fewest number of nodes’. However, this analysis is inconsistent with the disambiguation at ‘by the mother’, so the processor cannot attach this phrase and has to reanalyse.

If two analyses of an ambiguous structure have an equal number of tree structure nodes, the late closure principle applies. As Irina Sekerina writes in her paper ‘The Late Closure Principle in Processing of Ambiguous Russian Sentences’ people, when possible, attach incoming lexical items into the currently processed phrase or clause (i.e., the lowest possible nonterminal node dominating the last item analyzed). However, the universality of ‘late closure principles’ has been undermined by some differences between languages, because, unlike English, some languages prefer the ‘early closure interpretation’.

2) Someone moved the tuna of the cat that was under the table.

Late Closure Interpretation: the cat was under the table

Early Closure Interpretation: the tuna was under the table.



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