When the truth is not too hard to handle: an event-related potential study on the pragmatics of negation

Date Published:

2008 Dec


Our brains rapidly map incoming language onto what we hold to be true. Yet there are claims that such integration and verification processes are delayed in sentences containing negation words like not. However, studies have often confounded whether a statement is true and whether it is a natural thing to say during normal communication. In an event-related potential (ERP) experiment, we aimed to disentangle effects of truth value and pragmatic licensing on the comprehension of affirmative and negated real-world statements. As in affirmative sentences, false words elicited a larger N400 ERP than did true words in pragmatically licensed negated sentences (e.g., "In moderation, drinking red wine isn't bad/good..."), whereas true and false words elicited similar responses in unlicensed negated sentences (e.g., "A baby bunny's fur isn't very hard/soft..."). These results suggest that negation poses no principled obstacle for readers to immediately relate incoming words to what they hold to be true.

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