Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
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 sentence's 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.