The relationship among syntactic, semantic, and conceptual processes in language comprehension is a central question to the neurobiology of language. Several studies have suggested that conceptual combination in particular can be localized to the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL), while syntactic processes are more often associated with the posterior temporal lobe or inferior frontal gyrus. However, LATL activity can also correlate with syntactic computations, particularly in narrative comprehension. Here we investigated the degree to which LATL conceptual combination is dependent on syntax, specifically asking whether rapid (∼200 ms) magnetoencephalography effects of conceptual combination in the LATL can occur in the absence of licit syntactic phrase closure and in the absence of a semantically plausible output for the composition. We find that such effects do occur: LATL effects of conceptual combination were observed even when there was no syntactic phrase closure or plausible meaning. But syntactic closure did have an additive effect such that LATL signals were the highest for expressions that composed both conceptually and syntactically. Our findings conform to an account in which LATL conceptual composition is influenced by local syntactic composition but is also able to operate without it.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Handling Editor: Yanchao Bi