Minimal Attachment Principle

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Construal by Lyn Frazier and Charles Clifton
Lyn Frazier and Charles Clifton, Construal (The MIT Press, 1996).

In psycholinguistics, the minimal attachment principle is the theory that listeners and readers initially attempt to interpret sentences in terms of the simplest syntactic structure consistent with the input that's known at the moment. Also known as the Minimal Attachment Linear Order Principle.

Although numerous researchers have confirmed the minimal attachment principle for a variety of sentence types, others have demonstrated that the principle does not apply in all cases.

The minimal attachment principle was originally proposed as a descriptive strategy by Lyn Frazier (in her Ph.D. thesis "On Comprehending Sentences: Syntactic Parsing Strategies," 1978) and by Lyn Frazier and Janet Dean Fodor (in "The Sausage Machine: A New Two-Stage Parsing Model," Cognition, 1978).

​​Examples and Observations

  • "The principle of minimal attachment can be illustrated by the following example taken from Rayner and Pollatsek (1989). In the sentences, 'The girl knew the answer by heart' and 'The girl knew the answer was wrong,' the minimal attachment principle leads to a grammatical structure in which 'the answer' is regarded as the direct object of the verb 'knew.' This is appropriate for the first sentence, but not for the second."
    (Michael W. Eysenck and Mark T. Keane, Cognitive Psychology: A Student's Handbook, 4th ed. Psychology Press, 2000)
  • "In the following examples (from Frazier & Clifton 1996: 11), the minimal attachment principle produces a garden-path effect in example (8b), because, for the correct reading, an additional node for the relative clause has to be inserted before the object node is encountered:
    (8a) The teacher told the children the ghost story that she knew would frighten them.

    (8b) The teacher told the children the ghost story had frightened that it wasn't true.
    Once again, experimental data show that, for grammaticality judgments, decision times were significantly shorter for sentences whose interpretation was in accord with the minimal-attachment strategy than for those where this strategy led the comprehender up the garden path . . .."
    (Doris Schönefeld, Where Lexicon and Syntax Meet. Walter de Gruyter, 2001)
  • "Many cases of syntactic ambiguity in which the preferred reading conforms with the minimal attachment principle could be cited ('The house on the hill by the sea' is one such). But by no means all parsing preferences in cases of syntactic ambiguity can be satisfactorily explained by minimal attachment or some other purely structure-based parsing principle."
    (John C. L. Ingram, Neurolinguistics: An Introduction to Spoken Language Processing and Its Disorders. Cambridge University Press, 2007)