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J Psycholinguist Res. 2001 May;30(3):267-95.

Prosodic boundaries, comma rules, and brain responses: the closure positive shift in ERPs as a universal marker for prosodic phrasing in listeners and readers.

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Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Postfach 500 355, D-04303 Leipzig, Germany.


Just as the false comma in this sentence, shows punctuation can influence sentence processing considerably. Pauses and other prosodic cues in spoken language serve the same function of structuring the sentence in smaller phrases. However, surprisingly little effort has been spent on the question as to whether both phenomena rest on the same mechanism and whether they are equally efficient in guiding parsing decisions. In a recent study, we showed that auditory speech boundaries evoke a specific positive shift in the listeners' event-related brain potentials (ERPs) that indicates the sentence segmentation and resulting changes in the understanding of the utterance (Steinhauer et al., 1999a). Here, we present three ERP reading experiments demonstrating that the human brain processes commas in a similar manner and that comma perception depends crucially on the reader's individual punctuation habits. Main results of the study are: (1) Commas can determine initial parsing as efficiently as speech boundaries because they trigger the same prosodic phrasing covertly, although phonological representations seem to be activated to a lesser extent. (2) Independent of the input modality, this phrasing is reflected online by the same ERP component, namely the Closure Positive Shift (CPS). (3) Both behavioral and ERP data suggest that comma processing varies with the readers' idiosyncratic punctuation habits. (4) A combined auditory and visual ERP experiment shows that the CPS is also elicited both by delexicalized prosody and while subjects replicate prosodic boundaries during silent reading. (5) A comma-induced reversed garden path turned out to be much more difficult than the classical garden path. Implications for psycholinguistic models and future ERP research are discussed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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