Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
This study investigated the effects of combined semantic and syntactic violations in relation to the effects of single semantic and single syntactic violations on language-related event-related brain potential (ERP) effects (N400 and P600/ SPS). Syntactic violations consisted of a mismatch in grammatical gender or number features of the definite article and the noun in sentence-internal or sentence-final noun phrases (NPs). Semantic violations consisted of semantically implausible adjective–noun combinations in the same NPs. Combined syntactic and semantic violations were a summation of these two respective violation types. ERPs were recorded while subjects read the sentences with the different types of violations and the correct control sentences. ERP effects were computed relative to ERPs elicited by the sentence-internal or sentence-final nouns. The size of the N400 effect to the semantic violation was increased by an additional syntactic violation (the syntactic boost). In contrast, the size of the P600/ SPS to the syntactic violation was not affected by an additional semantic violation. This suggests that in the absence of syntactic ambiguity, the assignment of syntactic structure is independent of semantic context. However, semantic integration is influenced by syntactic processing. In the sentence-final position, additional global processing consequences were obtained as a result of earlier violations in the sentence. The resulting increase in the N400 amplitude to sentence-final words was independent of the nature of the violation. A speeded anomaly detection task revealed that it takes substantially longer to detect semantic than syntactic anomalies. These results are discussed in relation to the latency and processing characteristics of the N400 and P600/SPS effects. Overall, the results reveal an asymmetry in the interplay between syntax and semantics during on-line sentence comprehension.