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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

March 1998, Vol. 10, No. 2, Pages 264-280
(doi: 10.1162/089892998562690)
© 1998 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Event-Related Brain Potentials and Case Information in Syntactic Ambiguities
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In an ERP study, German sentences were investigated that contain a case-ambiguous NP that may be assigned accusative or dative case. Sentences were disambiguated by the verb in final position of the sentence. As our data show, sentences ending in a verb that assigns dative case to the ambiguous NP elicit a clear garden-path effect. The garden-path effect was indicated by a broad centro-posterior negative shift that occurred between 300 and 900 msec after the dative-assigning verb was presented. No enhanced P600 following the misanalysis was observed. Noun phrases whose case ambiguity was resolved in favor of accusative case and unambiguously dative-marked NPs did not trigger significant ERP differences. We will discuss the implications of our results for parsing and its neuropsychological correlates. The results of this study support a parser design according to which the so-called structural case (nominative or accusative) is assigned without any delay in the absence of morpho-lexical counterevidence. It is argued that the enhancement of a negative ERP component with a ficlassicalfl N400 topography refiects the difficulty of reanalysis due to reaccessing morpho-lexical information that lies outside the domain of the parsing module. Consequently, ERP responses to garden-path effects are not confined to a late positivity but vary depending on the level of processing involved in reanalysis. The fact that garden-path effects may also elicit an N400 can be linked to the nonhomogeneous linguistic properties of the constructions from which they arise.