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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

January 1, 2003, Vol. 15, No. 1, Pages 98-110
(doi: 10.1162/089892903321107855)
© 2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Repair, Revision, and Complexity in Syntactic Analysis: An Electrophysiological Differentiation
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One of the core aspects of human sentence processing is the ability to detect errors and to recover from erroneous analysis through revision of ambiguous sentences and repair of ungrammatical sentences. In the present study, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to help identify the nature of these processes by directly comparing ERPs to complex ambiguous sentence structures with and without grammatical violations, and to simpler unambiguous sentence structures with and without grammatical violations. In ambiguous sentences, preference of syntactic analysis was manipulated such that in one condition, the structures agreed with the preferred analysis, and in another condition, a nonpreferred but syntactically correct analysis (garden path) was imposed. Nonpreferred ambiguous structures require revision, whereas ungrammatical structures require repair. We found that distinct ERPs reflected different characteristics of syntactic processing. Specifically, our results are consistent with the idea that a positivity with a posterior distribution across the scalp (posterior P600) is an index of syntactic processing difficulty, including repair and revision, and that a frontally distributed positivity (frontal P600) is related to ambiguity resolution and/ or to an increase in discourse level complexity.