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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 1996 Sep;22(5):1219-48.

Temporal structure of syntactic parsing: early and late event-related brain potential effects.

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Max-Planck Institut für Neuropsychologische Forschung, Leipzig, Germany.


Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded from participants listening to or reading sentences that were correct, contained a violation of the required syntactic category, or contained a syntactic-category ambiguity. When sentences were presented auditorily (Experiment 1), there was an early left anterior negativity for syntactic-category violations, but not for syntactic-category ambiguities. Both anomaly types elicited a late centroparietally distributed positivity. When sentences were presented visually word by word (Experiment 2), again an early left anterior negativity was found only for syntactic-category violations, and both types of anomalies elicited a late positivity. The combined data are taken to be consistent with a 2-stage model of parsing, including a 1st stage, during which an initial phrase structure is built and a 2nd stage, during which thematic role assignment and, if necessary, reanalysis takes place. Disruptions to the 1st stage of syntactic parsing appear to be correlated with an early left anterior negativity, whereas disruptions to the 2nd stage might be correlated with a late posterior distributed positivity.

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