The present study investigated the automaticity of morphosyntactic processes and processes of syntactic structure building using event-related brain potentials. Two experiments were conducted, which contrasted the impact of local subject-verb agreement violations (Experiment 1) and word category violations (Experiment 2) on the mismatch negativity, an early event-related brain potential component reflecting automatic auditory change detection. The two violation types were realized in two-word utterances comparable with regard to acoustic parameters and structural complexity. The grammaticality of the utterances modulated the mismatch negativity response in both experiments, suggesting that both types of syntactic violations were detected automatically within 200 msec after the violation point. However, the topographical distribution of the grammaticality effect varied as a function of violation type, which indicates that the brain mechanisms underlying the processing of subject-verb agreement and word category information may be functionally distinct even at this earliest stage of syntactic analysis. The findings are discussed against the background of studies investigating syntax processing beyond the level of two-word utterances.

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