A picture of Brian

Brian W. Dillon

Associate Professor, Department of Linguistics, UMass Amherst

📩bwdillon@umass.edu   📄C.V   📊OSF   🐦Twitter

I am a psycholinguist. In my work, I try to understand how language comprehension proceeds mostly effortlessly, despite the apparent complexity in this process. I am particularly interested in the relationship between grammatical structure and working memory: How does the grammar of a given language influence how we encode linguistic input in working memory? Our group is pursuing a range of research projects in this general area. In our work, we prioritize gathering insights from typologically diverse languages (such as Tagalog and Turkish), using a range of experimental techniques (including eye-tracking-while-reading, visual world, and ERP), and developing points of contact with linguistic research into the structure of language.

In the sentence Mary likes her, English speakers intuitively understand that her cannot refer to Mary - it's someone else. These Principle B effects occur in many languages. But why do languages have this constraint? And how do comprehenders so effortlessly exclude the unacceptable interpretation, even though they're likely thinking about Mary when they encounter the pronoun? Our research group - BUMASA (Binding at UMASs) - is exploring questions like these in English, Tagalog, and Turkish using both comprehension methods and production methods. Initial results suggest that English speakers have a 'default assumption' of disjoint reference: When processing transitive predicates like like, they presume that the two entities involved in the event are distinct.


Burnsky, J., Keshev, M., Asatryan, M., Hlachova, B., Johnson, K. & Dillon, B. (2022, March). Look Away! An Object is Coming. Poster presented at the 35th annual Human Sentence Processing Conference, 2022, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Kush, D., & Dillon, B. (2021). Principle B constrains the processing of cataphora: Evidence for syntactic and discourse predictions. Journal of Memory and Language, 120, 104254. [Preprint] [OSF]

Pizarro-Guevara, J., & Dillon, B. (2022). What Tagalog can teach us: The influence of word order in reflexive processing. Proceedings of AFLA XXVIII (The Twenty-Eighth Meeting of the Austronesian Formal Linguistics Association).

To what degree can garden path effects be reduced to effects of word-level predictability (surprisal)? And do deep neural network models process garden path ambiguities in a way that is similar to humans? With Tal Linzen, our group is addressing these questions by building the Syntactic Ambiguity Processing (SAP) Benchmark. The SAP benchmark is a large, open dataset of reading time data on a range of syntactic ambiguities, using both self-paced reading and eye-tracking-while-reading techniques. The early results of our project suggest that garden path effects are unlikely to (just) reflect word predictability, and that at present DNNs do a relatively poor job in capturing the processing difficulty human readers experience on these sentences.


Arehalli, S., Dillon, B. & Linzen, T. (2022). Syntactic Surprisal from Neural Models Predicts, but Underestimates, Human Processing Difficulty From Syntactic Ambiguities. CoNLL 2022. Recipient of a Distinguished Paper Award - Congrats Suhas!

Arehalli, S., Dillon, B. & Linzen, T. (2022). Syntactic Surprisal from Neural Language Models tracks Garden Path Effects. Poster presented at the 35th annual Human Sentence Processing Conference, 2022, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Huang, K.-J., Arehalli, S., Kugemoto, M., Muxica, C., Prasad, G., Dillon, B., & Linzen, T. (2022). SPR mega-benchmark shows surprisal tracks construction- but not item-level difficulty. Talk presented (virtually) at the 35th annual Human Sentence Processing Conference, 2022, University of California, Santa Cruz (virtual).

Arehalli, S., & Dillon, B.. (2022). Neural Nets and Language Processing. Minicourse presented at the Linguistic Society of America's Annual Meeting 2022, Washington, DC.

Human memory is prone to error and interference, even at very short time scales. One way this impacts language use is the errors that users make in forming agreement dependencies, both in comprehension and production. With Aya Meltzer-Asscher and Maayan Keshev, our group is investigating these types of memory errors in comprehension in Hebrew and English. In this work we ask: How do comprehenders update noisy representations of past input as they encounter new material? And does rich agreement marking in languages like Hebrew help to combat memory interference by providing redudant cues to the features of items in memory? This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF #2146798) in collaboration with the Binational Science Foundation.


Dillon, B. & Keshev, M. (to appear). Comparative psycholinguistics: Prediction, retrieval, and grammatical diversity. Chapter to appear in Polinsky, Corver, and Barbiers (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Comparative Syntax.

Keshev, M., Cartner, M., Neal, A., Meltzer-Asscher, A., & Dillon B. (2022). Dynamic encoding of agreement features and its effects on interference. Poster presented at the 35th annual Human Sentence Processing Conference, 2022, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Currently at UMass

Maayan Keshev Post-doctoral researcher

Jed Sam Pizzaro-Guevara Post-doctoral researcher

Kuan-Jung Huang Ph.D. Student

Anissa Neal Ph.D. Student

Özge Bakay Ph.D. Student

Erika Mayer Ph.D. Student

Breanna Pratley Ph.D. Student

Zander Lynch Undergraduate student

Katie Jordan Undergraduate student

Graduate Alumni

Carolyn Anderson Assistant Professor, Computer Science, Wellesley College

Caroline Andrews Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Comparative Linguistics, University of Zurich

Thuy Bui Program Manager, Office of the Provost, VinUniversity

Jon Burnsky Language Engineer, Amazon

Sakshi Bhatia Assistant Professor, Linguistics, University of Delhi

Christopher Hammerly Assistant Professor, Linguistics, University of British Columbia

Rodica Ivan Research Scientist, Acuity Insights

Shayne Sloggett Experimental Officer, Linguistics, University of York

Michael Wilson Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Linguistics, Yale University

Undergraduate Alumni

Vishal Arvindam Ph.D. Student, Department of Linguistics, UCSC

Barb Hlachova M.A. Student, Linguistics, Oxford University

Risa Komatsu M.A. Student, Elementary Education, Boston College

Christian Muxica Ph.D. Student, Department of Linguistics, UCLA

Bhavya Pant Language Data Researcher, Amazon

Grusha Prasad Assistant Professor, Computer Science, Colgate University

Anthony Yacovone Ph.D. Student, Harvard University

Lisa Zhao Ph.D. Student, Cornell University


Anderson, C. & Dillon, B. (under review). Grammatical perspective-taking in comprehension and production.

Bleotu, C. & Dillon, B. (under review). Do (Subject-like) DPs Attract More than Bare Nouns? Evidence from Agreement Attraction in Romanian. [Preprint]

Mertzen, D., Paape, D., Dillon, B., Engbert, R. & Vasishth, S. (under review). Syntactic and semantic interference in sentence comprehension: Support from English and German eye-tracking data. [Preprint]

Mertzen, D., Laurinavichyute, A., Dillon, B., Engbert, R. & Vasishth, S. (under review). Is there cross-linguistic evidence for proactive cue-based retrieval interference in sentence comprehension? Eye-tracking data from English, German and Russian. [Preprint]

Wilson, M. & Dillon, B. Alignment between Thematic Roles and Grammatical Functions Facilitates Sentence Processing: Evidence from Experiencer Verbs [Preprint]


Bhatia, S. & Dillon, B. (2022). Processing agreement in Hindi: When agreement feeds attraction. Journal of Memory and Language, 125, 104322. [Preprint] [OSF / Dataset]

Ferreira, F., & Dillon, B. (2022). Glossa Psycholinguistics: Open access by scholars, for scholars. Glossa Psycholinguistics, 1,1.

Hammerly, C., Staub, A., & Dillon, B. (2022). Person-based prominence guides incremental interpretation: Evidence from obviation in Ojibwe. Cognition, 225, 105122. [Preprint] [OSF / Dataset]

Pasquereau, J., Dillon, B., & Frazier, L. (in press). Quantification at A Distance and Grammatical Illusions. Syntax. [OSF / Dataset]

Pizarro-Guevara, J., & Dillon, B. (2022). What Tagalog can teach us: The influence of word order in reflexive processing. Proceedings of AFLA XXVIII (The Twenty-Eighth Meeting of the Austronesian Formal Linguistics Association).

Yadav, H., Paape, D., Smith, G., Dillon, B. & Vasishth, S. (2022). Individual Differences in Cue Weighting in Sentence Comprehension: An Evaluation Using Approximate Bayesian Computation. Open Mind, 6, 1-24. [OSF / Dataset]


Dillon, B., & Wagers, M. (2021). Approaching Gradience in Acceptability with the Tools of Signal Detection Theory. In Goodall (ed), The Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Syntax. [Preprint]

Kush, D., & Dillon, B. (2021). Sentence processing and linguistic theory. In Allott, Lohnhdal & Rey (eds), The Blackwell Companion to Chomsky. [Preprint].

Kush, D., & Dillon, B. (2021). Principle B constrains the processing of cataphora: Evidence for syntactic and discourse predictions. Journal of Memory and Language, 120, 104254. [Preprint] [OSF]

Ivan, R., Dillon, B., & Johnson, K. (2021). (Bound) Pronouns in Competition: Evidence from Comprehension. In Proceedings of WCCFL 39. Cascadilla Proceedings Project, Somerville, MA, USA.

Neal, A., & Dillon, B. (2021). Definitely islands? Experimental investigation of definite islands. In The Proceedings of Experiments and Linguistic Meaning, 1.


Grant, M., Sloggett, S., & Dillon, B. (2020). Processing ambiguities in attachment and pronominal reference. Glossa: a journal of general linguistics, 5(1).

Kush, D., & Dillon, B. (2020). Eye-tracking and experimental syntax. In Sprouse (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Experimental Syntax . [Preprint].


Anderson, C. & Dillon, B. (2019). Guess who’s coming (and who’s going): Bringing perspective to the Rational Speech Acts framework. In the Proceedings for the Society of Computation in Linguistics, 2, 20.

Biondo, N., Vespignani, F., & Dillon, B. (2019). Attachment and concord of temporal adverbs: evidence from eye movements. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 983.

Hammerly, C., Staub, A., & Dillon, B. (2019). The grammaticality asymmetry in agreement attraction reflects response bias: Experimental and modeling evidence. Cognitive Psychology, 110, 70-104 [Preprint] [ OSF / Dataset]

Kush, D., Dillon., B, Eik, R., & Staub, A. (2019). Processing complex verbs in Norwegian: Evidence for early decomposition. Memory and Cognition, 1-16.

Omaki, A., Yacovone, A., Ovans, Z., & Dillon, B. (2019). Rebels without a clause: Processing reflexives in fronted wh-predicates. Journal of Memory and Language, 107, 80-94. [ OSF / Dataset]


Dillon, B., Andrews, C., Rotello, C. M., & Wagers, M. (2019). A new argument for co-active parses during language comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 45(7), 1271. [Preprint] [OSF / Dataset]

Dillon, B., Frazier, L., & Clifton, C. (2018). No longer an orphan: Evidence for appositive attachment from sentence comprehension. Glossa: A journal of general linguistics, 3(1), 32.

Mendia, J.A., Poole, E., & Dillon, B. (2018). Spurious NPI licensing and exhaustification. In the Proceedings of Semantics and Linguistic Theory, 28, 233–250.


Dillon, B. (2017). Incremental syntactic processing and the Right Roof Constraint. In LaCara, Moulton, and Tessier (eds.), A festschrift for Kyle Johnson.

Dillon, B., Clifton, C, Sloggett, S., & Frazier, L. (2017). Appositives and their aftermath: Interference depends on at-issue vs. not-at-issue status. Journal of Memory and Language, 96, 93-109.

Dillon, B., Staub, A., Levy, J. & Clifton, C. (2017). Which noun phrases is this verb supposed to agree with? Object agreement in American English. Language, 93(1), 65-96.

Sloggett, S., Andrews, C. & Dillon, B. (2017). Agreement is all like: every illusion is illusory in its own way. In Chapman, L. & Ivan, R. (eds.), A festschrift for Peggy Speas.


Staub, A., Dillon, B., & Clifton, C. (2016). The matrix verb as a source of difficulty in object relative clauses. Cognitive Science, 41, 1353-1376.

Dillon, B. (2016). A short discourse on reflexives: a reply to Cunnings (2016).Bilingualism and Cognition, 1-2.


Dillon, B., Chow, W-Y, & Xiang, M. (2015). The relationship between anaphor features and antecedent retrieval: Comparing Mandarin ziji and ta-ziji. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Frazier, L, Clifton, C., & Dillon, B. (2015). A note on interpreting damn expressives: Transferring the blame. Language and Cognition, 7(2), 1-14. Jäger, L., Benz, L., Roeser, J., Dillon, B., & Vasishth, S. (2015). Teasing apart retrieval and encoding interference in the processing of anaphors. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Omaki, A., Dillon, B., Ito, S. Anti-locality bias in the processing of Japanese reflexive binding (Thought and Language). (2015). 電子情報通信学会技術研究報告= IEICE technical report: 信学技報 115 (176), 15-17.


Dillon, B. (2014). Syntactic memory in the comprehension of reflexive dependencies: an overview. Language and Linguistics Compass.

Dillon, B., Chow, WY., Wagers, M., Guo, TM., Liu, FQ., & Phillips, C. (2014). The structure-sensitivity of memory access: Evidence from Mandarin long distance reflexives. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Dillon, B., Clifton, C. Jr., & Frazier, L. (2014). Pushed aside: Parentheticals, memory and processing. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29(4), 483-498.

Xiang, M., Dillon, B., Wagers, M., Liu, FQ., & Guo, TM. (2014) Processing Covert Dependencies: An SAT Study on Mandarin Wh-in-situ Questions. Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 23(2), 207-232.


Dillon, B., Mishler, A., Sloggett, S., & Phillips, C. (2013). Contrasting interference profiles for agreement and anaphora: Experimental and modeling evidence. Journal of Memory and Language, 69(2), 85-103.

Dillon, B., Dunbar, E. (joint first author status), & Idsardi, W. (2013). A single-stage approach to learning phonological categories: Insights from Inuktitut. Cognitive Science, 37, 344-377.

Dillon, B. & Hornstein, N. (2013). On the structural nature of island constraints. In Sprouse & Hornstein (eds), Experimental Syntax and Island Effects)., pp 208-222.

Dunbar, E., Dillon, B., & Idsardi, W. (2013). A Bayesian evaluation of the cost of abstractness. In Sanz, Laka ,& Tanenhaus (eds), Language down the garden path: The cognitive and biological basis for linguistic structure, pp. 360-383.


Dillon, B., Nevins, A., Austin, A., & Phillips, C. (2012). Syntactic and semantic predictors of tense in Hindi: an ERP investigation. Language and Cognitive Processes, 27, 313-344.


Xiang, M., Dillon, B., & Phillips, C. (2009). Illusory licensing across dependency types: ERP evidence. Brain and Language, 108, 40-55.


Nevins, A., Dillon, B., Malhotra, S., & Phillips, C. (2007). The role of feature-number and feature-type in processing Hindi verb agreement violations. Brain Research, 1164, 81-94.

Spring 2023

LINGUIST305: Writing for Linguists

LINGUIST611: Psychological Background to Linguistic Theories co-taught with Shota Momma.

The psycholinguistics workshop is a context for the psycholinguistic community at UMass to meet and discuss on-going work in the department, and in the field at large. We meet Friday mornings at 10AM in the N400 - meetings are run in a hybrid format, email Brian for the Zoom.

February 2023

2/17 - Group discussion of Phillips & Kratzer (submitted).

2/24 - HSP 2023 Practice: Shota & Maayan

March 2023

3/3 - HSP 2023 Practice: Kuan-Jung & Özge.

3/10 - HSP 2023: Road trip!

3/17 - Spring break

3/24 - ASAL36 @ UMass. Psycholinguistics session on Saturday 3/25!

3/31 - Erika

April 2023

4/7 - Jelly

4/14 - Mari

4/21 - Özge

4/28 - Breanna

May 2023

5/5 - WCCFL

5/12 - Ellen Lau colloquium prep