December 2010, Vol. 22, No. 12, Pages 2685-2701
This study examined the electrophysiological correlates of complement coercion. ERPs were measured as participants read and made acceptability judgments about plausible coerced sentences, plausible noncoerced sentences, and highly implausible animacy-violated sentences (“The journalist began/wrote/astonished the article before his coffee break”). Relative to noncoerced complement nouns, the coerced nouns evoked an N400 effect. This effect was not modulated by the number of possible activities implied by the coerced nouns (e.g., began reading the article; began writing the article) and did not differ either in magnitude or scalp distribution from the N400 effect evoked by the animacy-violated complement nouns. We suggest that the N400 modulation to both coerced and animacy-violated complement nouns reflected different types of mismatches between the semantic restrictions of the verb and the semantic properties of the incoming complement noun. This is consistent with models holding that a verb's semantic argument structure is represented and stored at a distinct level from its syntactic argument structure. Unlike the coerced complement noun, the animacy-violated nouns also evoked a robust P600 effect, which may have been triggered by the judgments of the highly implausible (syntactically determined) meanings of the animacy-violated propositions. No additional ERP effects were seen in the coerced sentences until the sentence-final word that, relative to sentence-final words in the noncoerced sentences, evoked a sustained anteriorly distributed positivity. We suggest that this effect reflected delayed attempts to retrieve the specific event(s) implied by coerced complement nouns.