Competence-based theories of island effects play a central role in generative grammar, yet the graded nature of many syntactic islands has never been properly accounted for. Categorical syntactic accounts of island effects have persisted in spite of a wealth of data suggesting that island effects are not categorical in nature and that nonstructural manipulations that leave island structures intact can radically alter judgments of island violations. We argue here, building on work by Paul Deane, Robert Kluender, and others, that processing factors have the potential to account for this otherwise unexplained variation in acceptability judgments.
We report the results of self-paced reading experiments and controlled acceptability studies that explore the relationship between processing costs and judgments of acceptability. In each of the three self-paced reading studies, the data indicate that the processing cost of different types of island violations can be significantly reduced to a degree comparable to that of nonisland filler-gap constructions by manipulating a single nonstructural factor. Moreover, this reduction in processing cost is accompanied by significant improvements in acceptability. This evidence favors the hypothesis that island-violating constructions involve numerous processing pressures that aggregate to drive processing difficulty above a threshold, resulting in unacceptability. We examine the implications of these findings for the grammar of filler-gap dependencies.