We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with processing light verb constructions such as “give a kiss”. These constructions consist of a semantically underspecified light verb (“give”) and an event nominal that contributes most of the meaning and also activates an argument structure of its own (“kiss”). This creates a mismatch between the syntactic constituents and the semantic roles of a sentence. Native speakers read German verb-final sentences that contained light verb constructions (e.g., “Julius gave Anne a kiss”), non-light constructions (e.g., “Julius gave Anne a rose”), and semantically anomalous constructions (e.g., *“Julius gave Anne a conversation”). ERPs were measured at the critical verb, which appeared after all its arguments. Compared to non-light constructions, the light verb constructions evoked a widely distributed, frontally focused, sustained negative-going effect between 500 and 900 ms after verb onset. We interpret this effect as reflecting working memory costs associated with complex semantic processes that establish a shared argument structure in the light verb constructions.
The verb “pounce” describes a single, near-instantaneous event. Yet, we easily understand that, “For several minutes the cat pounced…” describes a situation in which multiple pounces occurred, although this interpretation is not overtly specified by the sentenceʼs syntactic structure or by any of its individual words—a phenomenon known as “aspectual coercion.” Previous psycholinguistic studies have reported processing costs in association with aspectual coercion, but the neurocognitive mechanisms giving rise to these costs remain contentious. Additionally, there is some controversy about whether readers commit to a full interpretation of the event when the aspectual information becomes available, or whether they leave it temporarily underspecified until later in the sentence. Using ERPs, we addressed these questions in a design that fully crossed context type (punctive, durative, frequentative) with verb type (punctive, durative). We found a late, sustained negativity to punctive verbs in durative contexts, but not in frequentative (e.g., explicitly iterative) contexts. This effect was distinct from the N400 in both its time course and scalp distribution, suggesting that it reflected a different underlying neurocognitive mechanism. We also found that ERPs to durative verbs were unaffected by context type. Together, our results provide strong evidence that neural activity associated with aspectual coercion is driven by the engagement of a morphosyntactically unrealized semantic operator rather than by violations of real-world knowledge, more general shifts in event representation, or event iterativity itself. More generally, our results add to a growing body of evidence that a set of late-onset sustained negativities reflect elaborative semantic processing that goes beyond simply combining the meaning of individual words with syntactic structure to arrive at a final representation of meaning.
Wittenberg, E., Jackendoff, R., Kuperberg, G., Paczynski, M., Snedeker, J., Wiese, H., & Wittenberg, E. (2014). The processing and representation of light verb constructions. In Bachrach, A., Roy, I. and Stockall, L. (Eds): Structuring the Argument: Multidisciplinary research on verb argument structure (pp. 61-80) . John Benjamins Publishing Company.
This study examined neural activity associated with establishing causal relationships across sentences during on-line comprehension. ERPs were measured while participants read and judged the relatedness of three-sentence scenarios in which the final sentence was highly causally related, intermediately related, and causally unrelated to its context. Lexico-semantic co-occurrence was matched across the three conditions using a Latent Semantic Analysis. Critical words in causally unrelated scenarios evoked a larger N400 than words in both highly causally related and intermediately related scenarios, regardless of whether they appeared before or at the sentence-final position. At midline sites, the N400 to intermediately related sentence-final words was attenuated to the same degree as to highly causally related words, but otherwise the N400 to intermediately related words fell in between that evoked by highly causally related and intermediately related words. No modulation of the late positivity/P600 component was observed across conditions. These results indicate that both simple and complex causal inferences can influence the earliest stages of semantically processing an incoming word. Further, they suggest that causal coherence, at the situation level, can influence incremental word-by-word discourse comprehension, even when semantic relationships between individual words are matched.
This study examined the electrophysiological correlates of complement coercion. ERPs were measured as participants read and made acceptability judgments about plausible coerced sentences, plausible noncoerced sentences, and highly implausible animacy-violated sentences ("The journalist began/wrote/astonished the article before his coffee break"). Relative to noncoerced complement nouns, the coerced nouns evoked an N400 effect. This effect was not modulated by the number of possible activities implied by the coerced nouns (e.g., began reading the article; began writing the article) and did not differ either in magnitude or scalp distribution from the N400 effect evoked by the animacy-violated complement nouns. We suggest that the N400 modulation to both coerced and animacy-violated complement nouns reflected different types of mismatches between the semantic restrictions of the verb and the semantic properties of the incoming complement noun. This is consistent with models holding that a verb's semantic argument structure is represented and stored at a distinct level from its syntactic argument structure. Unlike the coerced complement noun, the animacy-violated nouns also evoked a robust P600 effect, which may have been triggered by the judgments of the highly implausible (syntactically determined) meanings of the animacy-violated propositions. No additional ERP effects were seen in the coerced sentences until the sentence-final word that, relative to sentence-final words in the noncoerced sentences, evoked a sustained anteriorly distributed positivity. We suggest that this effect reflected delayed attempts to retrieve the specific event(s) implied by coerced complement nouns.
To build up coherence between sentences (comprehend discourse), we must draw inferences, i.e. activate and integrate information that is not actually stated. We used event-related fMRI to determine the localization and extent of brain activity mediating causal inferencing across short, three-sentence scenarios. Participants read and made causal coherence judgments to sentences that were highly causally related, intermediately related or unrelated to their preceding two-sentence contexts. The highly related and intermediately related scenarios were matched in terms of semantic similarities between their individual component words. A pre-rating study established that causal inferences were generated to the intermediately related but not to the highly related or unrelated scenarios. In the scanner, sentences that were intermediately related (relative to highly related or unrelated) to their preceding contexts were associated with longer judgment reaction times and sustained increases in hemodynamic activity within left lateral temporal/inferior parietal/prefrontal cortices, the right inferior prefrontal gyrus and bilateral superior medial prefrontal cortices. In contrast, sentences that were unrelated (relative to highly related) to their preceding contexts were associated with only transient increases in activity (at, but not after, the peak of the hemodynamic response) within the right lateral temporal cortex and the right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These data suggest that, to make sense of discourse, we activate a large bilateral cortical network in response to what is not explicitly stated. We suggest that this network reflects the activation, retrieval and integration of information from long-term semantic memory into incoming discourse structure during causal inferencing.