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Fact vs. opinion: A psycholinguistic look at the interpretation of subjective adjectives

Elsi Miia Kaiser, University of Southern California

October 28, 2020 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · via Zoom

Program in Linguistics

In today’s world, we are continuously faced with a flood of information from many channels. A fundamental step for navigating this information stream is distinguishing objective, factual information from subjective opinions.  In this talk, I will discuss a series of psycholinguistic experiments from my lab investigating the comprehension of subjective, opinion-conveying adjectives (e.g. tasty, funny, frightening, unfair), focusing on two main themes: (i) the relation between subjective (and objective) adjectives and their syntactic position, and (ii) the relation between subjective adjectives and other perspective-sensitive elements, specifically (certain kinds of) reflexives and pronouns. As we will see, even when the basic information conveyed by a sentence is held constant, different syntactic packaging options can elicit different levels of perceived subjectivity. In other words, the difference between fact and opinion, or at least our ability to recognize opinion-based information as such, can be ‘distorted’ by linguistic packaging. Furthermore, I will present evidence that the perspective-sensitivity of subjective adjectives exhibits an asymmetric relation to other perspective-sensitive elements, namely pronouns and reflexives in picture-NP constructions. The perspectival interpretation of subjective adjectives (i.e. whose opinions they express) tracks more closely with the perspectival behavior of reflexives than pronouns. As a whole, this work strives to contribute to our understanding of whether and how the interpretation of subjective adjectives — i.e. adjectives evaluated relative to an opinion-holder– both guides and is guided by other aspects of language.

Elsi Kaiser is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Southern California. Her primary research focus is in psycholinguistics, in particular human sentence processing. She completed her dissertation work at the Linguistics Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation focused on reference resolution in Finnish, Dutch and Estonian, using a combination of psycholinguistic and corpus data. Prior to that, sge received a B.A. in Germanic Languages and Literatures and certificates in Linguistics and French from Princeton University, and an M.A. in Psychology from Penn. She is originally from Finland.

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