Conceptual combination and the given/new distinction

Conceptual combination is the process by which people construct the meaning of a sentence from the meanings of its individual words. In this series of experiments, we study the order in which subjects combine concepts by timing them as they decide whether a sentence is true or false. The experiments demonstrate that combination order is a function of whether the words are Given information (i.e., previously mentioned or presupposed) or New information (conveyed for the first time): Subjects begin with the Given words, relating New terms to these Given meanings. This “Given First” preference is evident for written sentences (Experiments 1, 2) and for spoken ones (Experiments 3–4). It occurs when the sentences are of uniform structure (Experiments 1, 3, and 4) as well as when they are mixed with sentences of different forms (Experiment 2). And it holds no matter whether the given information is signaled externally in a preceding question (Experiments 1–3) or internally through special syntactic constructions (Experiment 4).