Late Closure (Sentence Processing)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In sentence processing, late closure is the principle that new words (or "incoming lexical items") tend to be associated with the phrase or clause currently being processed rather than with structures farther back in the sentence. The principle of late-closure is one aspect of the syntax-first approach to parsing a sentence. Late closure is also known as recency.

Late closure is generally assumed to be innate and universal, and it has been documented for a wide variety of constructions in many languages. However, as noted below, there are exceptions. 

The theory of late closure was identified by Lyn Frazier in her dissertation "On Comprehending Sentences: Syntactic Parsing Strategies" (1978) and by Frazier and Janet Dean Fodor in "The Sausage Machine: A New Two-Stage Parsing Model" (Cognition, 1978).

Examples and Observations

  • "In order to interpret a sentence, one must interpret a structured string of words. Thus, if one interprets a sentence quickly, one must analyze it structurally even faster. Frazier's principles [minimal attachment and late closure] simply said, take the first available analysis, the first analysis you can compute, which will typically be the one with the least amount of structure added at each choice point."
    (Charles Clifton, Jr., "Evaluating Models of Human Sentence Processing." Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing, ed. by Matthew W. Crocker et al. Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Two Examples of Late Closure

"One example of late closure is sentence (5):

(5) Tom said that Bill had taken the cleaning out yesterday.

Here the adverb yesterday may be attached to the main clause (Tom said . . .) or the subsequent subordinate clause (Bill had taken . . .). Frazier and Fodor (1978) argue that we tend to prefer the latter interpretation. Another example is (6), in which the prepositional phrase in the library could modify either the verb put or the verb reading. We tend to prefer attaching the prepositional phrase to the latter verb (Frazier & Fodor, 1978).

(6) Jessie put the book Kathy was reading in the library . . ."

(David W. Carroll, Psychology of Language, 5th ed. Thomson Learning, 2008)​

Late Closure as a Dependent Strategy

"The Late Closure strategy is not a decision principle which the parser relies on when it is unsure about the correct attachment of incoming materials; rather, late closure of phrases and clauses is a result of the fact that the first stage parser functions most efficiently by (minimally) attaching incoming material with material on its left which has already been analyzed."
(Lyn Frazier, "On Comprehending Sentences: Syntactic Parsing Strategies." Indiana University Linguistics Club, 1979)​

The Garden-Path Model

"If two analyses of an ambiguous structure have an equal number of tree structure nodes, the ​late closure principle applies. It predicts that people attach an ambiguous phrase to the currently processed phrase. The late closure principle accounts for parsing preferences in many other ambiguities. For example, it predicts that in (2), the relative clause that was tasty prefers to attach low to the most recent noun phrase the sauce rather than high to the steak (e.g. Traxler et al, 1998; Gilboy et al., 1995).

(2) The steak with the sauce that was tasty didn't win the prize.

In many cases, late closure results in a preference for attachment to the most recent phrase in the preceding part of the sentence, and therefore it makes predictions similar to those of recency principles in other theories (Gibson, 1998; Kimball, 1973; Stevenson, 1994). Proponents of the garden-path model have conducted several studies that showed evidence for garden-path effects predicted by minimal attachment and late closure (e.g. Ferreira and Clifton, 1986; Frazier and Rayner, 1982; Rayner et al., 1983)."
(Roger P.G. van Gompel and Martin J. Pickering, "Syntactic Parsing." The Oxford Handbook of Psycholinguistics, ed. by M. Gareth Gaskell. Oxford University Press, 2007)​


"According to the garden-path model, prior context should not influence the initial parsing of an ambiguous sentence. However, there are several studies in which initial parsing was affected by context. . . .

"Carreiras and Clifton (1993) found evidence that readers often do not follow the principle of late closure. They presented sentences such as 'The spy shot the daughter of the colonel who was standing on the balcony.' According to the principle of late closure, readers should interpret this as meaning that the colonel (rather than the daughter) was standing on the balcony. In fact, they did not strongly prefer either interpretation, which is contrary to the garden-path model. When an equivalent sentence was presented in Spanish, there was a clear preference for assuming that the daughter was standing on the balcony (early rather than late closure). This is also contrary to theoretical prediction."
(Michael W. Eysenck and Mark T. Keane, Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook, 5th ed. Taylor & Francis, 2005)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Late Closure (Sentence Processing)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Late Closure (Sentence Processing). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Late Closure (Sentence Processing)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).