Theoretical considerations and diverse empirical data from clinical, psycholinguistic, and developmental studies suggest that language comprehension processes are decomposable into separate subsystems, including distinct systems for semantic and grammatical processing. Here we report that event-related potentials (ERPs) to syntactically well-formed but semantically anomalous sentences produced a pattern of brain activity that is distinct in timing and distribution from the patterns elicited by syntactically deviant sentences, and further, that different types of syntactic deviance produced distinct ERP patterns.
Forty right-handed young adults read sentences presented at 2 words/sec while ERPs were recorded from over several positions between and within the hemispheres. Half of the sentences were semantically and grammatically acceptable and were controls for the remainder, which contained sentence medial words that violated (1) semantic expectations, (2) phrase structure rules, or (3) WH-movement constraints on Specificity and (4) Subjacency. As in prior research, the semantic anomalies produced a negative potential, N400, that was bilaterally distributed and was largest over posterior regions. The phrase structure violations enhanced the N125 response over anterior regions of the left hemisphere, and elicited a negative response (300-500 msec) over temporal and parietal regions of the left hemisphere. Violations of Specificity constraints produced a slow negative potential, evident by 125 msec, that was also largest over anterior regions of the left hemisphere. Violations of Subjacency constraints elicited a broadly and symmetrically distributed positivity that onset around 200 msec. The distinct timing and distribution of these effects provide biological support for theories that distinguish between these types of grammatical rules and constraints and more generally for the proposal that semantic and grammatical processes are distinct subsystems within the language faculty.