Abstract

Research in psycholinguistics and in the cognitive neuroscience of language has suggested that semantic and syntactic processing are associated with different neurophysiologic correlates, such as the N400 and the P600 in the ERPs. However, only a handful of studies have investigated the neural basis of the syntax–semantics interface, and even fewer experiments have dealt with the cases in which semantic composition can proceed independently of the syntax. Here we looked into one such case—complement coercion—using ERPs. We compared sentences such as, “The journalist wrote the article” with “The journalist began the article.” The second sentence seems to involve a silent semantic element, which is expressed in the first sentence by the head of the verb phrase (VP) “wrote the article.” The second type of construction may therefore require the reader to infer or recover from memory a richer event sense of the VP “began the article,” such as began writing the article, and to integrate that into a semantic representation of the sentence. This operation is referred to as “complement coercion.” Consistently with earlier reading time, eye tracking, and MEG studies, we found traces of such additional computations in the ERPs: Coercion gives rise to a long-lasting negative shift, which differs at least in duration from a standard N400 effect. Issues regarding the nature of the computation involved are discussed in the light of a neurocognitive model of language processing and a formal semantic analysis of coercion.

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