Edward (Ted) Gibson received a B. Sc. from Queens University (1985), an M. Phil. from Cambridge (1986) and a PhD (computational linguistics, 1991) from Carnegie Mellon University. He joined the faculty at MIT in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences in 1993, where he has been a full professor since 2004. He was elected a fellow of the Cognitive Science Society in 2017. Gibson’s research examines how language is processed, and how language processing constraints constrain language structure (words and sentences). In a past life, he competed for Canada at the 1981-1985 World Championships and the 1984 Olympics (7th), and for Cambridge in 1986 in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race (won by 7 lengths).
Discourse and processing approaches to syntactic "island" effects
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, US
Researchers going back to Ross (1967) and Chomsky (1973) have hypothesized that the source of the unacceptability of long-distance syntactic dependencies such as in (1a) may be a syntactic constraint (like Chomsky’s proposed Subjacency constraint):
1a. extraction from subject: ?? Which sports-car did the color of __ delight the baseball player?
1b. extraction from object: Which sports-car did the baseball player love the color of __ ?
One of the strongest predictions of the syntactic account is that the extraction acceptability is independent of the construction in which the extraction occurs (Schutze et al., 2015): it is the syntax that blocks the long distance dependency, not the meaning (the construction). In recent work, Abeillé et al (2020) show that this approach cannot be correct, because extraction acceptability crucially depends on the construction. Extraction from relative clauses, for example, are permitted in similar configurations as (1):
2a. extraction from subject: The dealer sold the sports-car of which [the color __] delighted the baseball player
2b. extraction from object: The dealer sold the sports-car of which the baseball player loved [the color __]
Here I will describe the approach taken by Abeillé et al. — the Focus-Background Conflict Constraint — and show how it accounts for many effects that have been hard to explain with the syntactic approach. Following Erteschik-Shir (1973), Kuno (1987), Goldberg (2006), Sag (2010) and Chaves & Putnam (2020), I speculate that the unacceptability of an island structure is almost never due to the syntax; instead the unacceptability of an island structure is almost always explained in terms of discourse, frequency or memory (cf. Sprouse et al. 2012; Sprouse et al., 2016; for an opposing view).