Vol. 20, No. 3
Negation Processing in Context Is Not (Always) Delayed
a Joint Doctoral Program in Language and Communicative Disorders, San Diego State University & University of California, San Diego
b Center for Research in Language, University of California, San Diego
c Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego
Although most linguistic cues are thought to affect subsequent processing (almost) immediately after they are encountered, negation has traditionally been viewed as an operator that has its effects only after the negated sentence has been processed. Consequently, most tests for effects of negation have been post-sentential. One prior study using event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to detect negation effects on the processing of subsequent words within the same sentence failed to observe any. We maintain that this failure was due to the use of isolated sentences in which negation was not pragmatically licensed and did not change the expectancy for the sentence endings. To make negation-induced expectation changes detectable, we embedded affirmative and negative sentences in discourse contexts in which negation impacted the expectancy for and plausibility of a continuation; i.e., expectancies for negative and affirmative sentences differed. We conducted a series of three experiments. One used the event-related brain potential (ERP) methodology, especially the N400 to the sentence-final words as the main index of word expectancy. The N400 results revealed that negation can affect expectancies for sentence continuations. The ERP study was complemented by two verification experiments, that differed in the presentation mode for the target sentence (word-by-word vs. whole-sentence). The comparison of verification times indicated that for negation-induced expectation changes to occur readers must have enough time and available processing capacity. In sum, when pragmatically licensed and supported by processing resources, the effects of negation can – like other operators – be (almost immediate) and intra-sentential.