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.
Constituent structure has long been established as a central feature of human language. Analogous to how syntax organizes words in sentences, a narrative grammar organizes sequential images into hierarchic constituents. Here we show that the brain draws upon this constituent structure to comprehend wordless visual narratives. We recorded neural responses as participants viewed sequences of visual images (comics strips) in which blank images either disrupted individual narrative constituents or fell at natural constituent boundaries. A disruption of either the first or the second narrative constituent produced a left-lateralized anterior negativity effect between 500 and 700ms. Disruption of the second constituent also elicited a posteriorly-distributed positivity (P600) effect. These neural responses are similar to those associated with structural violations in language and music. These findings provide evidence that comprehenders use a narrative structure to comprehend visual sequences and that the brain engages similar neurocognitive mechanisms to build structure across multiple domains.