What is who violating? A reconsideration of Linguistic
Violations in Light of Event-Related Brain Potentials
Departments of Cognitive Science and Neurosciences
University of California, San Diego
Department of Linguistics
University of California, San Diego
It is often a worthwhile exercise to step back from one's field of
endeavor and to think in broad terms about what its proper goals are,
or perhaps what they should be. It seems to us
that the proper goals of ERP research into language comprehension
should at minimum include enquiries into the following questions.
(1) How many independent factors contribute to our understanding of
(2) What function relates all these factors to comprehension?
Undoubtedly this function is non-linear since upon careful analysis
almost every biological function is.
(3) Are these factors specific to language, or do they cut across
(4) Which consequences of these factors can be consciously modified
(e.g. stopped or gated), and which are not under conscious control?
Although these remain at present long-range objectives of ERP language
research, there is nonetheless a slowly accumulating body of evidence
that has begun to address issues in each of these areas. At the same
time, over ten years of research have established beyond a doubt that
ERPs are effective tools for the investigation of factors and processes
involved in language comprehension. A host of ERP measures, including
amplitude, latency, and distribution, have been shown to vary, often
systematically, with factors relevant to understanding. The majority of
these studies have taken advantage of the fact that ERPs are
particularly sensitive indices of violations of expectancy.
Kutas and Hillyard (1980) first observed that following a
violation of a semantic expectation at the end of a sentence, there
was a negative component in the averaged waveform that was larger over
posterior regions than over anterior regions, and over the right
hemisphere than over the left hemisphere. This monophasic negative
wave onset around 200 msec. and was between 300 and 400 msec. in
duration; it was called the N400, to reflect the fact that it was
negative-going and peaked around 400 msec. post-stimulus (see
Figure 1). Since then, a number of studies have shown the reliability
and robustness of this effect in a variety of paradigms, some of which
will be reviewed in this chapter (for reviews see Kutas and Van
Petten, 1988; Fischler, 1990; Halgren, 1990).
Violations are thus known to be good vehicles for eliciting ERP
effects. These can in turn be modulated by other factors in a way
that makes it possible to ask questions about various processing
models of language. However, the fact that this is the case does
not imply that language ERP components are specific or unique
reflections of violation. For example, the N400 was originally
viewed as a semantic violation detector. That perception has
persisted to the present day, even though several studies have since
demonstrated that while the N400 is largest in amplitude following
semantic violations, these are neither necessary nor sufficient to
yield an N400 component. In this chapter we highlight those studies
which have demonstrated the sensitivity of the N400 to factors other
than semantic violation.
Additionally, we address the question of just what constitutes
a violation in the first place. Although the utility of violations
in helping to decide between models of language processing has been
amply demonstrated, this in no way implies or guarantees that
researchers know exactly what isexpecte and therefore what is
"violate. Nor can we overlook the fact that even the description of
the domain of a violation is theory-dependent. We would therefore
like to raise the possibility that violations are epiphenomenal,
i.e. reducible to more fundamental properties of language, or even
of cognition in general.
We set about doing this in the following way. First we
review the more general biological and cognitive factors known to
influence N400 amplitude, latency, and distribution. Then we take a
look at some recent studies which have investigated the effects of
violations of various sorts on the ERP record of sentence processing.
Finally, we review studies which have indicated that the violations
in question are perhaps best viewed as emerging from the interaction of
a number of different variables, some of which may not be
THE INFLUENCE OF BIOLOGICAL AND COGNITIVE FACTORS ON THE N400
There is ample evidence indicating that the N400 and the cognitive
function that underlies its elicitation are modality independent. N400
effects have been observed in the visual modality in a variety of
languages, including written English (Kutas, Van Petten, and Besson,
1988), Dutch (Gunter, Jackson, and Mulder, in press), French (Besson
and Macar, 1987; Ardal, Donald, Meuter, Muldrew, and Luce, 1990),
Spanish (Kutas, Bates, Kluender, Van Petten, Clark, and Blesch, in
preparation) and Japanese (Koyama, Nageishi, Shimokochi, Hokama,
Miyazato, Miyatani, and Ogura, 1991), for visually presented signs
of American Sign Language in congenitally deaf adults (Neville, 1985;
Kutas, Neville, and Holcomb, 1987), for line drawings terminating
sentences presented visually (Kutas and Van Petten, 1990; Nigam,
Hoffman, and Simons, 1990), and in the auditory modality for
both natural and metered speech (McCallum, Farmer, and Pocock, 1984;
Herning, Jones, and Hunt, 1987; O'Halloran, Isenhart, Sandman, and
Larkey, 1988; Connolly, Stewart, and Phillips, 1990; Holcomb and
Neville, 1990; Bentin, Kutas, and Hillyard, in press). In all
these situations, the relative difference between the ERP to a word
or picture that fits with its context and to one that does not is a
Modality independence, however, does not imply an insensitivity
to the eliciting sensory modality. Indeed, the onset latency, peak
latency, duration, and laterality of both the raw N400 elicited by
one condition as well as the N400 effect itself (i.e. the difference
between two conditions) seem to vary systematically as a function of
modality. For example, the N400 effect in comprehension of speech
generally onsets earlier and lasts longer than that observed during
reading. Insofar as asymmetries have been obtained, N400s in the
visual and auditory modalities seem to exhibit reversed lateralities;
that is, the effect is larger over the right hemisphere than over the
left hemisphere during reading, but reversed during speech processing
(Holcomb and Neville, 1990).
Age and family history of handedness are other biologically
determined factors that influence the N400. For the same stimulus
sets, young adults generate larger and more peaked N400 waves than do
older adults (Harbin, Marsh, and Harvey, 1984; Hamberger and Friedman,
1989; Gunter, Jackson, and Mulder, in press); there appears to be a
linear reduction in N400 amplitude with age (Kutas, Mitchiner, and
Iragui, in preparation). Although there have been no studies of the
N400 specifically and systematically devoted to determining the relation
between its laterality and handedness, some patterns have emerged.
During reading, the N400 seems to be larger over the right hemisphere
as long as subjects do not have a left-handed relative in the immediate
family. The N400s of subjects with left-handed family members are
markedly less asymmetric (Kutas, Van Petten, and Besson, 1988; see
Figure 2). As mentioned above, this right predominance of the visual
N400 appears to be reversed in the auditory modality. Whether the
laterality of the auditory N400 is also sensitive to family history of
left-handedness is unknown.
N400 amplitude is also influenced by a number of cognitive
manipulations. Within an experimental session, N400 amplitudes are
larger for the first occurrence of a word or picture relative to the
second occurrence (for a review see Van Petten, Kutas, Kluender,
Mitchiner, and McIsaac, 1991). This reduction in N400 amplitude
with repetition interacts with frequency and congruity. N400
repetition effects are more pronounced for low frequency than high
frequency words (Rugg, 1990; Van Petten, Kutas, Kluender, Mitchiner,
and McIsaac, 1991) and for incongruous than congruous sentence-terminal
words (Besson, Kutas, and Van Petten, in press). Both the semantic
priming and repetition priming effects on the N400 are further subject
to attentional manipulations. Priming effects are either reduced
or absent for words occurring outside the focus of attention (Holcomb,
1986; Nobre and McCarthy, 1987; Otten, Rugg, and Doyle, submitted).
On the average, N400 amplitudes are also smaller for the less fluent
language of a bilingual (Ardal, Donald, Meuter, Muldrew, and Luce,
1990; Kutas, Bates, Kluender, Van Petten, Clark, and Blesch, in
Although most of the studies utilizing the N400 effect have
focused on modulations of its amplitude, some data concerning its
timing have also accumulated. Specifically, the onset and peak
latencies -- and on occasion the duration -- of the N400 have
similarly proven to be susceptible to biological and cognitive
influences. Both onset and peak latencies are delayed with increasing
age (Gunter, Jackson, and Mulder, in press; Kutas, Mitchiner, and
Iragui, in preparation). The rate of presentation of words in
sentences also affects N400 latency. Semantically anomalous
words completing sentences presented one word at a time (also known as
rapid serial visual presentation orRSV) elicit N400s with a peak
latency around 400 msec. when the presentation rate is 250 msec. or
slower. At a presentation rate of one word every 100 msec., both the
onset and peak of the N400 effect are delayed by between 80 to 100
msec. (Kutas, 1987). We have also found a relationship between the
timing of the N400 effect and a bilingual's fluency in his/her two
languages; the N400 in the less fluent language peaks later and lasts
longer than that in the more fluent language (Kutas, Bates, Kluender,
Van Petten, Clark, and Blesch, in preparation; see also Ardal, Donald,
Meuter, Muldrew, and Luce, 1990). The size of the set of semantically
related words from which a word is chosen appears to influence N400
latency as well. In semantic verification tasks, the N400s elicited
by words that do not match a specified definition both start and peak
earlier if the definition mentions a polar opposite rather than a
category with a number of other members. A possibly related effect
is that involving the ordinal position of the eliciting word in a
sentence. The N400 elicited by a semantically anomalous word in the
middle of sentences, where context does not fully constrain the
occurrence of an ensuing word, peaks approximately 30 msec. later
than that elicited by an anomalous word at sentence end, where
contextual constraint is greater (Kutas and Hillyard, 1983).
ERP STUDIES OF THE EFFECTS OF VIOLATION ON SENTENCE PROCESSING
Let us now examine some ERP consequences of various violations
within the domain of language. Kutas and Hillyard (1983) investigated
the ERP consequences of morphological violations embedded within
written text. Specifically, subjects were asked to read a number of
different passages one word at a time in order to answer a series of
multiple choice questions. In addition to various semantic violations,
the text included sentences with morphological violations of the
(a) ...as a turtle grows its shell grow too....
(b) ...all turtles have four leg and a tail....
(c) Turtles will spit out things they does not like to eat.
(d) ...they tend to been as cool as....
These morphological violations did not yield an N400 with the same
amplitude and distribution as that elicited by the semantic violations,
but there was nonetheless an enhanced negativity in the 300-500
msec. range relative to control sentences, as well as a hint of an
enhanced late positivity that carried over into the next epoch. A
replication (Kutas, Bates, Kluender, Van Petten, Clark, and Blesch, in
preparation) with another group of monolingual subjects showed that
both the enhanced negativity and positivity were real effects, and that
the different morphological violations were associated with different
ERP changes. Bilingual Spanish speakers reading similar materials in
Spanish showed no negativity but an even more pronounced positivity
Recently, Osterhout (1990) examined the ERPs associated with a
number of different syntactic violations. In one of his paradigms,
ERPs were recorded while subjects read sentences containing
"subcategorization violation; after each sentence, subjects were
asked to make a decision as to its well-formedness (a so-called
On the assumption that words in the lexicon are assigned to various
categories (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.), verbs as a
class can be further subdivided into subcategories on the basis of the
complements that they take. For example, some verbs take direct object
complements while others do not. Thus the verb persuade requires
a direct object but cannot take a prepositional complement (e.g. John
persuaded me. vs. *John persuaded to me.), while the verb hope never
takes a direct object but can take a prepositional complement (e.g.
*They hoped a solution. vs. They hoped for a solution.). More generally
it can be said that persuade belongs to that subcategory of verbs which
takes a direct object but not a prepositional complement, while hope
belongs to the subcategory of verbs that does not take a direct object
but does take a prepositional complement. Another way of saying this is
that persuadesubcategorize for a direct object while hope
"subcategorize for a prepositional complement. Hence a verb
subcategorization violation refers to the state of affairs that pertains
when an expectancy set up by the verb for a certain constituent (such as
a noun phrase direct object or a prepositional phrase) is not fulfilled,
or in other words, is violated.
None of the sentences that Osterhout used in his experiment contained
direct objects, but half the sentences contained verbs that require a
direct object and thus constituted subcategorization violations, while
the other half contained verbs that have no such requirement and were thus
well-formed. These sentences were of the following types.
(a) The broker hoped to sell the stock.
(b) The broker persuaded to the sell the stock.
Although both hope and persuade also take infinitival complements (i.e.
to sell the stock), persuade still requires an immediately following
direct object (e.g. The broker persuaded me to sell the stock.) while
hope does not (e.g. *The broker hoped me to sell the stock.). Osterhout
recorded ERPs to the preposition to, which can under no circumstances
introduce a direct object noun phrase and is thus unambiguously wrong
when a direct object is required, as in the case of persuade. Thus
the ERP to the to following persuaded could be expected to show some
sign of the subcategorization violation as soon as subjects became aware
that the required direct object was missing, relative to the ERP elicited
by the to following hoped, which requires no direct object.
And, indeed, the data in Figure 4 reveal that the ERP to the
subcategorization violation in the persuade condition is more
positive from about 400 msec. on than the corresponding ERP in the
control hope condition; Osterhout labelled this reponse the P600.
Notice that the ERP elicited by the final word of the persuade
condition containing the subcategorization violations sports an
N400 relative to the control hope condition which contains no syntactic
violations. It remains an open question whether this N400 reflects
the inability of subjects to find a suitable syntactic structure to
assign to such sentences, an inability to make sense of them semantically,
or both. Also worth noting is the similarity between the P600 observed
by Osterhout and Holcomb and the enhanced late positivity observed by
Kutas, Bates, Kluender, Van Petten, Clark, and Blesch (in preparation)
following morphological violations (see Figure 3). More recording
sites and greater scrutiny will be required to ascertain whether or
not these two positivities are in fact equivalent.
Recently Neville, Nicol, Barss, Forster, and Garrett (1991) reported on
the ERPs associated with violations of certain syntactic constraints
posited by extended standard theory (Chomsky, 1973, 1977, 1981,
1986a, 1986b). In one condition, Neville et al included phrase
structure violations, which for present purposes can best be viewed as
violations of normal word order. Subjects were asked to make
grammaticality judgements on sentences like:
(a) The scientist criticized a proof of the theorem.
(b) The scientist criticized Max's of proof the theorem.
The ERPs in response to the preposition of were compared across the two
conditions. The preposition violates the expectancy for a noun or
adjective to follow Max's in (3b), but is acceptable following the noun
proof in (3a). The violation in (3b) was associated with a number of
ERP effects relative to (3a), including a pronounced negativity between
300 and 500 msec. over temporal regions of the left hemisphere, and a
more broadly and bilaterally distributed late positivity (see Figure 5).
Neville et al also investigated violations of a constraint referred
to as thespecified subject conditio (Chomsky, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1986a,
1986b; Huang, 1982). Without going into the details and history of this
constraint within syntactic theory, we can simply say that it is considered
responsible for the ungrammaticality of (4b) relative to a grammatical
sentence like (4a).
(a) What did the scientist criticize a proof of ___ ?
(b) What did the scientist criticize Max's proof of ___ ?
The ERPs in Figure 6 show that the response to the word proof
following Max's in (4b) is associated with an enhanced negativity
in the region of the N1 component (around 100 msec.) as well as between
300 and 500 msec. post-stimulus, primarily over anterior regions of the
left hemisphere. Although the earlier effect occurs perhaps too early
to be an enhancement of the N1 per se, and may instead be a remnant of
differential processing of the previous word, Neville et al take
both ERP effects to be specific indices of the violation of the
specified subject condition. They looked at other violations as well,
but these two are sufficient to show the diversity of ERP componentry
elicited by varioussyntacti violations.
So far we have simply described the various ERP components apparently
associated with violations of expectancies or constraints within
different language domains. Within the domain of syntax, the variety
of ERP responses that have been observed suggests that there is no
unique index of syntactic violation. Although in the next section we
will show that the N400 is not a specific response to semantic anomaly,
we first demonstrate how the fact that an N400 is reliably elicited
by semantic anomaly has been used to yield information about syntactic
An example of this can be seen in the work of Garnsey and colleagues
(Garnsey, Tanenhaus, and Chapman, 1989). Garnsey exploited the fact
that N400s reliably occur in response to semantically incongruous words
to test alternative views of how people parse sentences, that is, how
they figure out the syntactic relations between words in a sentence.
In English, determining the grammatical functions (e.g. subject, direct
object, indirect object, etc.) of individual words in a sentence is
usually fairly simple, as this information is explicitly encoded in word
order. However, for certain constructions word order cannot be used to
assign grammatical functions. For instance, in wh-questions, where the
questioned element occurs at the beginning of a sentence (e.g. Which
customer did the secretary call?), it is impossible to know what the
grammatical function of the questioned element (Which customer) is
until later in the sentence. Immediately upon reading or hearing
Which customer, one cannot know whether it serves as the subject,
object of the verb, or object of a preposition, etc. To understand this
sentence the reader must keep this questioned element in working memory
until its grammatical function becomes clearly specified.
Wh-questions represent one type offiller-ga construction. The
questioned element or phrase (Which customer) is known as the
"fille. The empty position in the sentence where the filler would
occur in anech question (The secretary called which customer?) is
called thega, often indicated by a blank line (Which customer did
the secretary call ___ ?). In order to understand a sentence containing
a filler-gap construction, a hypothetical parser must locate the gap
and assign the filler to it. This procedure is occasionally difficult
or costly in terms of the allocation of mental resources because there
are no cues about gap location until some time after the filler is
presented, and because sometimes there is more than one possible gap
location. For these reasons, there exists a temporary ambiguity as to
the grammatical function of the filler while the sentence is being processed.
Depending on one's theoretical bent, one can choose among several
different procedures that a parser might follow to deal with the
ambiguities of filler-gap constructions (Fodor, 1978). At one extreme
is the view that an attempt is made to assign the filler to the first
possible gap location; this approach is called thefirst resor
strategy. At the other extreme is thelast resor strategy, which
requires the parser to leave the filler unassigned until there is
unambiguous information about where the true gap is, and only then
assign the filler to the gap. For the sentence Which customer did
the secretary call [___] about ___ ?, the firstpotentia gap
location occurs after call in square brackets, whereas the
actual gap occurs after the word about. These first and last
resort strategy views of how a wh-question is parsed make very
different predictions as to what mental processes occur immediately
following the word call.
Garnsey et al (1989) devised an electrophysiological test of
these two alternative positions by constructing sentences with embedded
wh-questions wherein the filler was either plausible or implausible:
(a) The businessman knew which customer the secretary called ___ at home.
(b) The businessman knew which article the secretary called ___ at home.
As a control, Garnsey also included simple declarative sentences which
either did or did not contain a semantically anomalous word, thereby
providing a baseline against which N400 effects in the embedded wh-question
sentences could be compared.
(a) The businessman knew whether the secretary called the customer at home.
(b) The businessman knew whether the secretary called the article at home.
The beauty of this design is that while the filler which article in (5b)
is anomalous and will therefore elicit an enhanced N400 component according
to both resort parsing strategies, the two make very different predictions
as to exactly where in the sentence the N400 should appear. If the first
resort strategy is in effect, then which article violates a semantic
expectancy after called and should elicit an N400 at that point. On the
other hand, if the parser is using a last resort strategy, then the
filler which article should not elicit an N400 until the sentence ends
and it is clear that there is no gap to which that filler can meaningfully
Since the ERP elicited by called does indeed contain an N400 when
preceded by an implausible filler (which article) but not by a
plausible one (which customer) (see Figure 7), the results support
a first resort strategy and argue against the last resort strategy
outlined above. They also argue against the existence of an autonomous
syntactic processing module: in such a model the parser would make the
filler-gap assignment at the first possible gap, but would not evaluate
its semantic plausibility until some later stage of processing when all
potential gap sites had been eliminated from consideration.
It should be emphasized that the N400 is not a direct reflection of
gap-filling, but rather a reflection of the incongruity that is either
a consequence of making an implausible filler-gap assignment or at least
of evaluating the possibility of that assignment. There are many
potential sources of information that could help the parser in making
filler-gap assignment, and Garnsey's present research is aimed at
determining whether the parser makes use of these different sources of
information, and if so, when.
ARE LINGUISTIC VIOLATIONS REDUCIBLE TO OTHER FACTORS?
Numerous experiments attest to the fact that while semantic anomalies
may elicit the largest amplitude N400s, the response is not unique or
specific to the presence of a semantic anomaly. As early as 1984, Kutas
and colleagues (Kutas and Hillyard, 1984; Kutas, Lindamood, and Hillyard,
1984) showed in a series of studies that semantically congruous words of
low cloze probability elicit a larger N400 than semantically congruous
words of high cloze probability. This finding indicated that semantic
anomaly is not a necessary condition for the elicitation of an N400;
instead, N400 amplitude varies as an inverse function of word expectancy
in a given context. In addition, Kutas and her colleagues showed that N400
amplitude is attenuated in response both to semantically anomalous
words and to low cloze probability words when these are semantically
related to high cloze probabilitybest completion (Figure 8). This
finding suggested that N400 amplitude is modulated by the degree to
which a word is semantically primed by prior context.
More recent studies have shown that semantic anomaly is not even a
sufficient condition for the elicitation of an N400 response. For
example, Besson, Kutas, and Van Petten (in press) have shown that by
the third repetition of a sentence containing a semantic anomaly, the
N400 effect is eliminated (Figure 9). Although a particular word may
render a sentence anomalous in isolation, the mere act of repetition
increases the expectancy for that particular word to occur in the same
context, thereby reducing N400 amplitude. Clearly it is the
variation in expectancy and not the violation per se that determines
whether an N400 will be elicited by an anomalous word.
N400s are in fact elicited by all words to varying degrees as
determined by a number of factors; more general biological and cognitive
factors were outlined in the second section of this chapter. We now turn to
factors more closely tied to sentence processing. Among the most
robust of these observations concerning N400 amplitude are:
(1) N400s are larger in response to open-class words than to closed-class
words (Kutas and Hillyard, 1983; Kutas, Van Petten, and Besson, 1988;
Van Petten and Kutas, 1991a, 1991b; Besson, Kutas, and Van Petten,
(2) N400s are larger in response to open-class words of low frequency than
to open-class words of high frequency when such words occur in word
lists or at the beginning of sentences. This effect of frequency on the
400 interacts with semantic constraints (Van Petten and Kutas, 1991a,
1991b), semantic congruity (Besson, Kutas, and Van Petten, in press),
and word repetition (Rugg, 1990; Van Petten, Kutas, Kluender, Mitchiner
and McIsaac, 1991; Besson, Kutas, and Van Petten, in press).
(3) N400 amplitudes are not only reduced by the prior occurrence of a
semantic associate or semantically related word, but increasingly
dampened by the accumulation of semantic constraints such as those
that build up during the course of a sentence (Van Petten, 1989; Van
Petten and Kutas, 1991a, 1991b). The latter effect is manifest in a
relative reduction in the amplitude of N400s elicited by open-class
words as a function of word position in isolated but meaningful
sentences. In two studies (Van Petten, 1989; Van Petten and Kutas,
1991a, 1991b), it has also been shown that this effect of contextual
constraint on N400 amplitude interacts with the eliciting word's
frequency of occurrence in the language such that the accumulation of
prior context overrides the initial difference in N400 amplitude
between high and low frequency words.
It was with some of these observations in hand that Van Petten
used the N400 to focus on interactions between lexical and sentence-level
factors in an attempt to resolve the controversy that revolves around
the time course of sentential context effects. In a series of experiments,
Van Petten and Kutas (1987, 1991a, 1991b) tested the timing predictions of
two different views of language processing. One view assumes that each
word has a pre-defined lexical representation that is first accessed and
only subsequently subject to higher level (e.g. sentential or discourse)
constraints (Garrett, 1978; Forster, 1981; Fodor 1983); the other view is
based on the assumption that a reader's primary goal is comprehension,
and that the brain substrates for language are organized so that this goal
of comprehension pervades and impacts other levels of analysis at a number
of different time points, both early and late (Marslen-Wilson 1987;
Marslen-Wilson and Tyler, 1980, 1987; Tyler and Marslen-Wilson 1977; Tyler
and Wessels, 1983). On the whole, the results of the Van Petten and Kutas
studies cannot be accommodated easily by word processing models that
rely strictly on static representations of words in a mental lexicon
slowly built over years of use, and have led to our belief that
comprehension is a product of converging constraints that operate in
parallel at multiple levels of linguistic analysis.
The main conclusions that can be drawn from these experiments include:
(1) the process which yields frequency effects for words presented
in isolation is not mandatory or immune to sentence-level context;
(2) the influence of sentence-level context can be as powerful and act as
early as that of a single lexically associated word; and
(3) sentence context can be used to pick out the appropriate core meaning of
an ambiguous word without first passing through an early stage of
indiscriminate semantic activation.
Let us examine the logic of one of these experiments. The materials for
this experiment consisted of four types of sentences, each containing a
critical pair of words. The same associated pairs of words (such as
salt-pepper) were embedded in both congruent and syntactically legal but
semantically anomalous sentences Congruent Associate andAnomalous
Associate, respectively). Likewise, pairs of words which were not
particularly related to one another outside of a sentence context were
embedded in both congruent and anomalous sentences Congruent
Unassociate andAnomalous Unassociate). With this design, the
second word of a pair could thus benefit from both sentential and
lexical context as in the Congruent Associated condition, lexical context
alone as in the Anomalous Associated condition, sentential context alone as
in the Congruent Associated condition, and neither as in the Anomalous
The ERPs elicited by the critical word pairs are shown in Figure
10. Based on what we know about the sensitivity of the N400 to lexical
associative effects and to contextual effects, all but the Anomalous
Unassociated condition should show an N400 effect. The critical
question, however, concerns the timing of the N400 effect. Does the
lexical N400 effect start earlier than the sentential N400 effect as the
autonomous lexical view would predict, or is there some other pattern of
timing relations? The answer is that there is no indication that
the lexical effect precedes the sentential effect, for the N400 effects
appear to start at the same time. Thus we find no evidence for the
view that there is a distinct stage in the processing of a word that is
influenced by associative links but blind to sentence-level context.
These ERP data indicate that lexical and sentential effects are
remarkably similar. Indeed, there seems to be no reason to assume that
the mechanisms that underlie the two are completely orthogonal. The
sensitivity of the N400 to lexical factors such as word class membership
and frequency as well as to sentential influences underscores its
independence from semantic violations.
This raises the question of whether the ERP effects seen in response to
so-called syntactic violations in the preceding section are actually
specific responses to violations. If they are, then of course it is
necessary to figure out exactly what constraints are being violated, and
to show that a particular violation will always elicit a specific ERP
pattern. But consider the possibility, based on what we have learned
about the N400 and its relation to semantic violations, that these ERPs
are not specific to syntactic violations per se but rather reflect the
interactions of various lexical, semantic, and pragmatic factors with
the surface structural properties of language. On this view, syntactic
violations merely represent one end of a continuum of such interactions.
At the opposite end of the continuum one would find interactions of these
properties that produce completely grammatical sentences; in between
these two extremes would exist an entire range of sentences whose
grammaticality would be determined by the confluence of these factors in
An example of this perspective on the relation between ERPs and
grammaticality is provided by the work of Kluender (Kluender,
1991; Kluender and Kutas, in preparation a). Specifically, Kluender
focussed on ERPs elicited by words in yes/no- and wh-questions, making
direct comparisons between sentences of both types that differed in the
closed-class item that introduced an embedded clause (e.g. that, if, or
(a) Can't you remember *that* he advised them against it on previous occasions?
(b) Can't you remember *if* he advised them against it on previous occasions?
(c) Can't you remember *who* he advised ___ against it on previous occasions?
(d) What did you remember *that* he advised them against ___ on previous
(e) What can't you remember *if* he advised them against ___ on previous
(f) What can't you remember *who* he advised ___ against ___ on previous
This work was based on the notion that the membership of a word in the
open or closed class is highly correlated with its frequency of
occurrence in the language (Gentner, 1981), and with the extent to
which it refers to entities or relations in the real world, i.e. its
referentiality (Kluender, in press). Kluender predicted that closed-class
items would elicit N400s of different amplitude to the extent that they
varied along these dimensions. And indeed, as seen in Figure 11, which
compares the yes/no-question conditions (7a) through (7c), who, the least
frequent and most referential of these closed-class words, elicits the
largest N400; if, which is intermediate on both dimensions, elicits an N400
intermediate in amplitude; and that, the most frequent and most semantically
neutral item, elicits the smallest N400.
In addition to these strictly lexical ERP effects, Kluender and Kutas
(in preparation b) observed an ERP effect that reflected the structural
properties of sentences containing filler-gap constructions. Specifically,
any condition containing a filler-gap relationship elicits a larger negativity
over left anterior regions when compared to conditions in which this
filler-gap relationship is absent. This can be seen in comparisons made at
the subject he in the embedded clause of all three yes/no-questions
(conditions 7a, 7b, and 7c): when he is preceded by the embedded filler
who as in condition (7c), a left anterior negativity is seen (Figure 12).
Note that all three sentences are perfectly grammatical, i.e. no
syntactic violation is involved in this comparison.
Figure 13 shows similar effects seen at three different positions
within the embedded clauses of wh-questions, conditions (7d),
(7e), and (7f). Although all three conditions contain main clause
wh-fillers associated with prepositional object gaps in the embedded
clause, condition (7f) contains an additional filler-gap relationship
in the embedded clause which does not exist in the other two conditions.
Left anterior negativity is seen at the embedded subject he in condition
(7f), the wh-question with the embedded filler who, relative to conditions
(7d) and (7e), which contain embedded that- and if-clauses. Note that
although the eliciting condition (7f) is in this case ungrammatical, the
response does not differ in latency or distribution from that seen at the
same position in the grammatical yes/no-question (7c) in Figure 12.
Furthermore, for some speakers condition (7e) is also considered
ungrammatical, but here no left anterior negativity emerges in the ERP.
The second position where this effect is seen is the embedded
preposition against; in condition (7f), which contains the
embedded filler-gap relationship, this preposition is preceded by a
direct object gap, while in conditions (7d) and (7e) the preposition is
preceded by a lexical noun phrase, in this example the pronoun
them. Once again, condition (7f) shows increased left anterior
negativity relative to the other two conditions, this time in response
to gap location. Although the eliciting condition is again the
ungrammatical one, a similar effect is seen in response to
the embedded preposition in condition (7c), i.e. in grammatical
yes/no-questions with embedded direct object gaps.
The third position is the preposition on in the embedded clause.
In all three conditions (7d), (7e), and (7f), this preposition is
preceded by a prepositional object gap associated with the main clause
filler What. When all three conditions are thus equivalent in the
presence of an immediately preceding gap, lexical effects reflecting
the occurrence of who, if, or that earlier in the sentence modulate
the amplitude of the negativity indexing the filler-gap relationship
(the possibility that the effect is due to the difference in the main
clause auxiliaries did vs.can't is relatively remote; see Kluender 1991
for discussion). The amplitude of the left anterior response is larger
in conditions (7e) and (7f), which contain who and if embeddings,
respectively, than in condition (7d), which contains a that embedding.
The important points to note are (1) that this negativity has persisted
throughout the extent of the filler-gap domain, that is, until the
filler is assigned and the dependency released, and (2) that
this structurally influenced sentential effect also responds to lexical
influences. Lexically induced modulations of the response to
sentence-final words (occasions) were also observed.
Traditionally, the differences in the grammaticality of these sentences
have been explained in terms of violations of syntactic constraints. However,
it may be possible to explain them in terms of the processing requirements of
a filler-gap construction and the demands of processing intervening lexical
items. For example, these processing difficulties may reflect strain on the
limited capacity of a working memory which must store a filler along with the
intermediate products of comprehension.
We hope to have convincingly laid to rest the misconception that the
N400 is exclusively associated with semantic anomaly; we reiterate for
emphasis that semantic anomaly is neither a necessary nor a sufficient
condition for the elicitation of an N400. Our reading of the currently
available research is that sentential processes can and do influence
lexical processing, and conversely, that lexical processes influence
sentential processing. In other words, we do not see ERP evidence for
a strict modularist position in these domains. In addition, we have
suggested that the canonical construal of linguistic violation may be
fundamentally flawed. Just as semantic anomalies have proved to be
derivable from an interaction of lexical properties (such as frequency
of occurrence and lexical class membership) with contextual constraints
at the sentence and discourse levels, so too it may prove possible to
derive syntactic violations in the traditional sense from the
interaction of the sequential structure of language with lexical and
semantic properties such as frequency of occurrence and referentiality.
If this is the case, then the next logical question is whether and to
what extent such interactions can be found in other cognitive domains
as well. Memory has frequently been invoked as a factor influencing
language processing (Carpenter and Just, in press; King and Carpenter,
in press, in preparation). Thus if specified subject condition violations
can be shown to fall out from the interaction of short-term memory
constraints with the need to access mental representations in simultaneous
lexical processing, one would want to know if similar effects can be
found in other memory tasks that do not involve language, say for
example in perceptual monitoring tasks. So in the long run, these data
can be used to assess the common notion that language processing is
somehow special, unique among cognitive processes, different in the nature
of the mental operations involved, and subject to very different processing
constraints than for example face recognition or comprehension of
visual scenes. We are hopeful that this is an empirical question to
which answers can be found.
Marta Kutas and some of the research herein were supported by an RSDA
from NIMH (MH00322) and grants from NICHD (HD22614) and NIA (AG08313).
Robert Kluender was supported by a McDonnell-Pew postdoctoral fellowship
in cognitive neuroscience. We would like to thank Claudia Brugman,
Heather McIsaac, Ken Paller, and Cyma Van Petten for comments on earlier
versions of this chapter.
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Grand average ERPs elicited by semantically congruous and incongruous
sentence-terminal words from frontal, central, and parietal midline
locations. Negative is up in this and all subsequent figures. Data
taken from Kutas and Hillyard (1980).
Grand average ERPs for the first seven words of sentences that subjects
read for meaning, averaged separately for the nine right-handed subjects
without, and the five right-handed subjects with left-handed
relatives. Right and left hemisphere sites are overlapped.
Note the absence of asymmetry in the 300-600 msec. range for
right-handers with left-handed family members. Reprinted from Kutas,
Van Petten and Besson (1988) by permission of Elsevier Publishers.
Grand average ERPs (n=15) from a group of Spanish/English bilinguals reading
simple Spanish text for comprehenison. Compared are ERPs elicited by verb
tense violations and control words matched on word position, length, and
lexical class. Spanish was the primary language of these bilinguals, who were
first exposed to English after age eight. Note the enhanced late positivity
elicited by verb tense violations.
Grand average ERPs (n=15) to subcategorization violations and control words
(to) and to the final words of sentences containing such violations and their
control words (stock). Note the late positivity (P600) elicited by the
subcategorization violations and the negativity (N400) elicited by sentence
terminal words in sentences containing the subcategorization violations. Data
taken from Osterhout (1990).
Grand average ERPs (n=40) elicited by phrase structure violations and two
subsequent words (dashed line) versus those elicited by control words (solid
line). Recordings are from temporal and occipital regions of the left and
right hemispheres. Adapted from Neville et al (1991).
Grand average ERPS (n=40) elicited by specified subject condition
violations (dashed line) and control words (solid line) as subjects made
grammaticality judgements. Words were presented once every 500 msec.
Data taken from Neville et al (1991).
Grand average ERPs (n=32) for plausible (solid line) and implausible
(dotted line) filler-gap sentences. At the top of the figure are the
sentence contexts preceding the words below to which ERPs were recorded.
Vertical dashed lines indicate the 200 msec. range across which N400
amplitude was quantified. The shading indicates the plausible-implausible
difference. Modified from Garnsey, Tanenhaus, and Chapman (1989).
A: Examples of sentences used in this study. Each pair of
sentences exhibits high contextual constraints, but whereas the first
sentence in each pair is terminated by itsbest completio (as
determined by a sentence completion norming study), the second
sentence in each pair is completed by a low cloze probability word.
In the first pair the low cloze probability ending is semantically
unrelated to the best completion, and in the second pair it is
semantically related. B: Grand average ERPs from Pz for best
completions (solid line) and for semantically related (large dashed
line) and semantically unrelated (small dashed line) low cloze
probability words. Reprinted from Kutas and Hillyard (1984).
Grand average ERPs (n=17) elicited by semantically congruous and
incongruous sentence endings after three different presentations
separated by over fifteen minutes. Note the reduction of N400 amplitude
with repetition. Data taken from Besson, Kutas and Van Petten (in
Grand average ERPs to the critical pairs of words (shown capitalized) in
each of the four sentence types used to contrast sentential and lexical
contexts. Reprinted from Van Petten and Kutas (1991c).
Grand average ERPs (n=30) elicited by that- (solid line) and
if-complementizers (dashed line) and by the wh-fillers who and what
(dotted line) in the initial position of embedded clauses in yes/no-questions.
Note the typical distribution of the monotonic N400 (also in the 500-700
msec. range): greater over the right hemisphere than over the left, and over
posterior regions than over anterior regions. Words were presented every 600
msec.; subjects were given a probe word task at the end of each sentence.
Data taken from Kluender (1991).
Grand average ERPs (n=30) recorded at three anterior left hemisphere
sites to function words (capitalized) immediately following embedded
complementizers and wh-fillers in yes/no-questions. Note the enhanced
negativity between 300 and 500 msec. associated with the existence of a
filler-gap relationship in the condition containing an embedded wh-question.
Data taken from Kluender (1991).
Grand average ERPs (n=30) from three anterior left hemisphere sites
elicited by three different positions in wh-questions: the function word
immediately following embedded complementizers and wh-fillers (HE), the
preposition immediately following the embedded direct object position
(AGAINST), and the initial function word of a sentence-ending adverbial
immediately following the prepositional object gap in all three conditions
(ON). Note that at the latter position, the left anterior negativity is
modulated in much the same way as the monotonic N400 seen in Figure 11.
Data taken from Kluender (1991).
Center for Research in Language