Electrophysiological signatures of event words: Dissociating syntactic and semantic category effects in lexical processing

Natalia Lapinskaya, Uchechukwu Uzomah, Marina Bedny, Ellen Lau

Numerous theories have been proposed regarding the brain's organization and retrieval of lexical information. Neurophysiological dissociations in processing different word classes, particularly nouns and verbs, have been extensively documented, supporting the contribution of grammatical class to lexical organization. However, the contribution of semantic properties to these processing differences is still unresolved. We aim to isolate this contribution by comparing ERPs to verbs (e.g. wade), object nouns (e.g. cookie), and event nouns (e.g. concert) in a paired similarity judgment task, as event nouns share grammatical category with object nouns but some semantic properties with verbs. We find that event nouns pattern with verbs in eliciting a more positive response than object nouns across left anterior electrodes 300–500 ms after word presentation. This time- window has been strongly linked to lexical-semantic access by prior electrophysiological work. Thus, the similarity of the response to words referring to concepts with more complex participant structure and temporal continuity extends across grammatical class (event nouns and verbs), and contrasts with the words that refer to objects (object nouns). This contrast supports a semantic, as well as syntactic, contribution to the differential neural organization and processing of lexical items. We also observed a late (500–800 ms post-stimulus) posterior positivity for object nouns relative to event nouns and verbs at the second word of each pair, which may reflect the impact of semantic properties on the similarity judgment task.