When we communicate, we often use language to identify and successfully transmit new information. We can highlight new and important information by focussing it through pitch, syntactic structure, or semantic content. Previous work has shown that focussed information is remembered better than neutral or unfocussed information. However, most of this work has used structures, like clefts and pseudo-clefts, that are rarely found in communication. We used spoken question-answer pairs, a frequent structure where the answers are focussed relative to the questions, to examine whether answers are remembered better than questions. On each trial, participants (n=48) saw three pictures on the screen while listening to a recorded question-answer exchange between two people, such as “What should move under the crab? – The sunflower!”. In an online Yes/No recognition memory test on the next day, participants recognised the names of pictures that appeared as answers 6% more accurately than the names of pictures that appeared as questions (β = 0.27, Wald z = 4.51, 95% CI = 0.15, 0.39, p = < 0.001). Thus, linguistic focus affected memory for the words of an overheard conversation. We discuss the methodological and theoretical implications of the findings for studies of conversation.
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