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Sebastian Aviña

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Some Sentences Force Humans to Backtrack

sábado, abril 19, 2008

Sometimes you have to see an entire sentence to get the proper meaning for the initial phrase(s). In some English sentences, you find a word halfway through that is inconsistentwith your current understanding. You have to restart from the beginning of the sentence. Trueswell et al in [TTG94] performed experiments that tracked people’s eye movements as they read the following sentence:

“The defendant examined by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.”

People paused at by because their initial interpretation was that the defendant examined something. The researchers found that people have a strong preference to interpret exam- ined as the main verb upon first reading of the sentence. After seeing by, people usually backtracked to the beginning of the sentence to begin a new interpretation. Adding commas allows your brain to interpret the sentence properly in one pass:

“The defendant, examined by the lawyer, turned out to be unreliable.”

Just like adding commas in an English sentence, adding new symbols to computer language phrases can often reduce the need for backtracking. If you are in control of the language definition, try to make statements as clear as possible. Use extra vocabulary symbols if necessary.

-Definite Antlr Reference (Terrence Parr), ppg 56

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