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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

May 2010, Vol. 22, No. 5, Pages 1036-1053
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21269)
© 2009 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Interplay between Prosody and Syntax in Sentence Processing: The Case of Subject- and Object-control Verbs
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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.