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Converging evidence for the relevance of alternative sets: data from NPs with focus sensitive particles in German


Recent psycholinguistic studies on the reality of alternative sets in processing focus NPs have shown that focus particles like ‘only’ play a special role in activating the mental representation of alternatives to focused nouns. In this paper we present a new corpus study which provides converging evidence to support psycholinguistic findings and suggests that alternatives preceded by a focus particle are not only more activated in experimental contexts, but are also more likely to be discussed in the subsequent context. To this end we develop and evaluate inter-annotator agreement on two novel annotation tasks in naturally occurring German corpus data: recognition of nominal alternatives in general without any context, and recognition of alternatives in the context of sentence pairs. We show that while annotators agree poorly on the first, they agree strongly on the second. We also develop a concept of ‘alternative density’, the number of alternatives realized in a sentence following a target NP, and present a mixed-effects model showing a very significant rise in density after the presence of German nur ‘only’ independently of other factors.

Corresponding author
Addresses for correspondence: Prof. Katharina Spalek, Institut für deutsche Sprache und Linguistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany; e-mail:
Prof. Amir Zeldes, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University, 1421 37th St. NW, Washington, DC 20057, USA; e-mail:
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Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1866-9808
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