Highlighting relevant information in a discourse context is a major aim of spoken language communication. Prosodic cues such as focal prominences are used to fulfill this aim through the pragmatic function of prosody. To determine whether listeners make on-line use of focal prominences to build coherent representations of the informational structure of the utterances, we used the brain event-related potential (ERP) method. Short dialogues composed of a question and an answer were presented auditorily. The design of the experiment allowed us to examine precisely the time course of the processing of prosodic patterns of sentence-medial or -final words in the answer. These patterns were either congruous or incongruous with regard to the pragmatic context introduced by the question. Furthermore, the ERP effects were compared for words with or without focal prominences. Results showed that pragmatically congruous and incongruous prosodic patterns elicit clear differences in the ERPs, which were largely modulated in latency and polarity by their position within the answer. By showing that prosodic patterns are processed on-line by listeners in order to understand the informational structure of the message, the present results demonstrate the psychobiological validity of the pragmatic concept of focus, expressed via prosodic cues. Moreover, the functional significance of the positive-going effects found sentence medially and negative-going effects found sentence finally is discussed. Whereas the former may reflect the processing of surprising and task-relevant prosodic patterns, the latter may reflect the integration problems encountered in extracting the overall informational structure of the sentence.

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