Memory of syntax and semantics

Jean Aitchison’s The Articulate Mammal describes and evaluates many interesting psycholinguistic experiments, one of which I want to draw attention to here:

a number of psychologists have found that all memory of syntax and vocabulary normally fades very fast indeed, unless subjects are specifically told that they will be asked to recall the sentence. Memory for syntax of any kind is near to chance approximately half a minute after a sentence has been spoken (Sachs 1967). In normal circumstances, it seems, people remember only the gist of what has been said, and they often confuse this with a number of extra beliefs and expectations about the topic under discussion (Fillenbaum 1973).

Jacqueline Strunk Sachs, speaking subsequently (PDF) about her experiment, said it showed that we forget “the specific wording of an utterance . . . within seconds”, though we might retain its meaning for a very long time.

Her 1967 paper (“Recognition memory for syntactic and semantic aspects of connected discourse”) was based on her doctoral dissertation and can be downloaded here.* It’s a short and clear account of a smartly designed study, well worth reading if you’re into this sort of thing and you don’t mind the Chomskyan terminology.

The abstract concludes:

The results suggest that the original form of the sentence is stored only for the short time necessary for comprehension to occur. When a semantic interpretation has been made, the meaning is stored. Thus the memory of the meaning is not dependent on memory of the original form of the sentence.

I imagine this rings true for most people. What say you? Have you noticed the rapid divergence between memory of what is said and memory of exactly how it is said?

* Typo fans will enjoy SpringerLink’s mangled paper title, “Recopition memory”, and the suggestion that some of the data were presented at a meeting held in April, 1066.


23 Responses to Memory of syntax and semantics

  1. I suppose what makes poetry different from prose is the fact that we DO remember the form as well as the content. Sometimes, indeed, the form is memorable when the content isn’t.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the thesis, but I have an add-on. Sometimes when I comment on posts such as yours I hit the wrong button(why and what doesn’t matter), and lose my brilliant prose. After I mentally kick myself for being a stupid clod, I try to(“try” is the operative word) rewrite the comment, only to realize that semantically and syntactically, the result is never the same, even though only seconds have passed; the event doesn’t have to be aural and oral.

  3. Stan says:

    Barrie: That’s true. Partly because the fact that it’s poetic language primes us to pay more attention, since we expect that the form has a value and significance normally lacking in ordinary prose. And if it has rhyme and repetitive rhythm, we’ll remember it even better.

    Marc: Interesting add-on! I’ve been pondering what differences, if any, exist between text recall in different media; and whether blog discussion, being like protracted conversation, is in this respect significantly different from, say, an article or essay when no direct dialogue is anticipated. Not much, I think. (P.S. After a few experiences like yours – comments failing to post, for whatever reason – I got into the habit of copying my comments just before submitting them. This has prevented much frustration.)

  4. ALice__M says:

    We experience this every day, non ? hence the need for the police to record everything, and the multiple versions of different witnesses, hence all the problems of misquotes creating conflicts between people, and friends also, sometimes.

  5. ALice__M says:

    Barrie : my experience about commenting is different : if I try to rewrite *my own words*, not someone else’s, then I’m always surprised to re-find them very easily, and verbatim.

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Not recalling the meaning of an utterance is potentially more dangerous than not recalling the exact word order.

    There are crocodiles in that lake.
    That lake contains crocodiles.
    You’ll find crocodiles in that water.

    Recalling the meaning might keep you from being lunch for crocodiles.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    Yes. And I can certainly relate to what Marc says, having been the victim all too frequently of lost comments in my webrush.
    Yes copy first.
    I’ve written myself on the different recall processes of siblings at a family event. It never ceases to amaze me what meanings we extract and what different memories….

  8. Stan says:

    Alice: Yes, we do. I think that our faulty, creative memory of what people say, combined with an exaggerated sense of the quality of that memory, can generate some of the conflict you mention.

    Charles: Quite right.

    WWW: Likewise: It’s a regular source of amusement to see how differently people remember the same utterance or scenario.

  9. aqualiquidlava says:

    A parrot’s brain, by contrast, seems to work the other way around. From my (nonexpert) perspective, it seems like parrots record the syntactic but not the semantic aspects of what’s been said. Of course, there’s no need for them to discern meaning, so the comparison is just a tangential one.

  10. Robert says:

    On top of quickly forgetting the precise wording, I find, being bilingual, that I often forget the language used to communicate.

  11. Stan says:

    aqualiquidlava: Thanks for your comment. That’s true to a degree: mimics simply mimic, but some birds are capable of semantic processing. The famous African grey parrot Alex was able to recognise many words and numbers.

    Robert: I remember that used to happen to me too, when I spoke other languages more regularly. Once, after a week or two in French-speaking countries, I travelled to Germany and found myself thinking, quite uselessly, in French. My German, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found…

  12. Daniel says:

    In a less Chomskyan vein, Deborah Tannen prefers to talk about “constructed dialogue” rather than “reported speech.” If you’re telling a story and you say, “She said …” you’re not going to follow it with the words that “she” actually said. You’re going to (re)construct the dialogue for the audience you’re talking to at that later date.

  13. Stan says:

    Thanks, Daniel. Her terminology makes sense to me: constructed implies the interpretation that often happens when speech is reported, and dialogue refers more explicitly to other people than does speech.

  14. Claude says:

    It’s very difficult to reconstruct an event, or to recall a conversation, as it actually was. I’ve been (gently) taken to task, sometimes, by my sisters and my sons, for not being thoroughly factual. I was quite relieved when I discovered those words from Françoise Giraud. “La vérité a, comme les oignons, dix-sept pelures.”

  15. Stan says:

    Claude: All we can do is aim to be as accurate as possible. Every recollection (and description of that recollection) is a creative and subjective act, not a photographic reproduction.

  16. Linda Seebach says:

    When I was taking notes as a reporter I was very much aware that people talk much faster than I can write and that my notes were accurate as to meaning but not verbatim. Typically the syntax is simplified (as well as disfluencies corrected). And if I read quotes back to people they would agree it was what they said, though it wasn’t, exactly.

    When I lost something I had written to a faulty keystroke, I could rewrite it quickly, but not identically — usually it was better.

  17. nick says:

    This is particularly noticeable on Twitter, when people type quotes from TV programmes as they watch. It’s remarkable how within a matter of a few seconds the same sentence may have been reported in 4 or 5 slightly syntactically-different ways.

  18. Stan says:

    Linda: Transcribing on the fly is not easy! Speech tends to be wayward and, as you note, very disfluent when compared to written text. Even careful, measured speech contains so much information that it makes sense we would (in most situations) dispense with details as soon as the main signal has been received. This does not suffice for journalism, of course, hence the reliance on shorthand and recording devices.

    Nick: Very true, and it’s something I’ve noticed too, for example when a political announcement is transmitted live on radio or TV. Synonyms creep in; syntax shifts here and there.

  19. […] Dickinson also created her own conventions. She understood that brevity imposes constraints on rhythm. Likewise, in interface copy, questions of form are better answered by the ear rather than the eye – especially when you consider that people usually remember meaning, not form. […]

  20. John Cowan says:

    What’s mysterious is why it is to this very day that print reporters insist on attempting to write down quotations, when perfectly usable digital recorders can be bought everywhere for US$25 or less. The judge’s wig is rather more defensible in the 21st century than the reporter’s pencil.

  21. […] etc. This is significant because our parallel processing power is limited, speech is ephemeral, and we quickly forget exactly what someone has said in spoken […]

  22. […] phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so […]

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