Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
This study addresses the question whether prosodic information can affect the choice for a syntactic analysis in auditory sentence processing. We manipulated the prosody (in the form of a prosodic break; PB) of locally ambiguous Dutch sentences to favor one of two interpretations. The experimental items contained two different types of so-called control verbs (subject and object control) in the matrix clause and were syntactically disambiguated by a transitive or by an intransitive verb. In Experiment 1, we established the default off-line preference of the items for a transitive or an intransitive disambiguating verb with a visual and an auditory fragment completion test. The results suggested that subject- and object-control verbs differently affect the syntactic structure that listeners expect. In Experiment 2, we investigated these two types of verbs separately in an on-line ERP study. Consistent with the literature, the PB elicited a closure positive shift. Furthermore, in subject-control items, an N400 effect for intransitive relative to transitive disambiguating verbs was found, both for sentences with and for sentences without a PB. This result suggests that the default preference for subject-control verbs goes in the same direction as the effect of the PB. In object-control items, an N400 effect for intransitive relative to transitive disambiguating verbs was found for sentences with a PB but no effect in the absence of a PB. This indicates that a PB can affect the syntactic analysis that listeners pursue.