We likely don’t think much about prosody and relative clauses when we read, but together they can greatly impact the way a sentence is read and create ambiguity, especially for neurodiverse audiences.
Relative clauses can be a source of ambiguity in writing. Consider this example: “The lady mended the sleeve of the shirt that had been stained” (Jun and Bishop 2015, 464).
The example is ambiguous because it is unclear if the shirt or the sleeve itself had been stained. The placement of the clauses makes it unclear as to how the sentence should be read rhythmically or interpreted semantically, partly because there is no other punctuation present to aid interpretation.
Now consider this same example with slight adjustments: “The lady mended the sleeve of the shirt, which had been stained.”
This example includes a comma that could cause some people to pause, thereby altering the rhythm (i.e., prosody) of the sentence. In fact, it’s possible that this alteration could influence how readers interpret the sentence: whether they think the shirt was stained or the sleeve was stained.
While this complex type of sentence structure could confuse any reader, the following study suggests that commas altering the prosody of the sentence could have a heavier interpretive impact on readers with autistic traits.
Sun-Ah Jun and Jason Bishop (2015) conducted a study called “Priming Implicit Prosody: Prosodic Boundaries and Individual Differences” on priming prosody, or the rhythm with which one reads. They examined how the presence or absence of commas before relative clauses affects the way that readers interpret sentences. Their study involved 120 native English speakers with no reported speech or communication disorders (at the beginning of the study).
The researchers prepared 16 target sentences that were complex and ambiguous, much like the stained shirt (or sleeve) example already discussed in this article. These sentences included multiple nouns and were designed to “lack any grammatical or semantic” structure that could influence readers to attach nouns to relative clauses (i.e., interpret the sentences) in a certain way (463). These sentences included no commas to influence prosody.
Researchers also prepared simpler sentences with little or no ambiguity. They prepared two types: one version included a restrictive relative clause with no preceding comma (“The inspector photographed the boat that was yellow”), and the second version included a nonrestrictive relative clause with a preceding comma (“The inspector photographed the boat, which was yellow” (Jun and Bishop 2015, 464, emphasis added)).
Readers were presented with three randomly selected simple sentences of one type at a time (i.e., only restrictive relative clauses with no comma or only nonrestrictive clauses with a comma). These sentences prepared (or primed) readers to read one of the more complex sentences such as, “Susanna was dating the cousin of the artist that was a veteran.” After reading the final more complex sentence in each of these four sentence sets, participants were asked questions requiring them to attach a noun phrase to the action of each sentence such as “Who was the veteran?” in order to determine how they understood the meaning of the sentence. Researchers interpreted their understanding of the sentences as evidence of the way they likely chunked the rhythm of the sentences when reading. After completing the activity, participants also filled out a questionnaire for the Autism Spectrum Quotient, which measures an individual’s neurodivergent traits.
“The results…add to a growing body of research indicating that autistic traits in the neurotypical population, at least those closely tied to pragmatic/communicative skills, predict sensitivity to prosody in sentence processing”Jun and Bishop (2015, 467)
Jun and Bishop (2015) found that reading the simpler sentences with commas influenced all participants to more frequently attach relative clauses to the first noun in the complex examples that had no commas. The prosody alteration in the simple sentences thereby appeared to alter the reading rhythm of the complex sentences, causing the attachment of the relative clause to nouns placed earlier in the sentences as opposed to later in the sentences.
The researchers observed that participants demonstrating higher autistic traits were even more heavily impacted, as shown by the way participants perceived the meaning of the sentences. Because individuals who illustrated high autistic communication traits were even more heavily influenced by the simple sentences’ priming effect, the study determined that “the results…add to a growing body of research indicating that autistic traits in the neurotypical population, at least those closely tied to pragmatic/communicative skills, predict sensitivity to prosody in sentence processing” (Jun and Bishop 2015, 467).
This research emphasizes how writers and editors need to be aware of their audience’s diverse needs and tendencies. Understanding how the placement of relative clauses and visual prosodic boundaries like commas can affect autistic readers is one small way to facilitate accessibility.
From an editing perspective, this awareness could influence choices about what to include in a style guide to enhance inclusivity. Such changes could also mean educating an author about how a complex writing style or syntax structure could contribute to ambiguity or misunderstanding that could negatively affect their readers’ experience. Carefully considering syntax structure and comma placement is a small but impactful way to promote inclusivity by making content accessible to a wide audience.
To find out more about prosody and readers with autistic traits, read the full article:
Jun, Sun-Ah, and Jason Bishop. “Priming Implicit Prosody: Prosodic Boundaries and Individual Differences.” Language and Speech 58, no. 4 (December 2015): 459–73. https://doi.org/10.1177/0023830914563368.
—Abbi Clark, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY TARA WINSTEAD
Find more research
Take a look at Jason Bishop’s article written for the UCLA Department of Linguistics to learn more about his research on prosody and autistic traits: Bishop, Jason. “WPP, No. 111: Focus, Prosody, and Individual Differences in “autistic” Traits: Evidence from Cross-Modal Semantic Priming.” Working Papers in Phonetics, UCLA Department of Linguistics (2012). https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1z6819t5
Read Jean B. Shmaker, Lisa D. Walsh, and Joseph B. Fisher’s article from the Journal of Special Education to learn more about commas and diverse learning styles: “Effects of Computerized Instruction on Mastery and Generalized Use of Commas Strategies by Students With LD.”
Schumaker, Jean B., Lisa D. Walsh, and Joseph B. Fisher. “Effects of Computerized Instruction on Mastery and Generalized Use of Commas Strategies by Students With LD.” Journal of Special Education Technology 36, no. 1 (March 2021): 29–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162643419878146.