The role of prediction in rapid syntactic analysis

Ellen Lau, Clare Stroud, Silke Plesch, Colin Phillips

A number of recent electrophysiological studies of sentence processing have shown that a subclass of syntactic violations elicits very rapid ERP responses, occurring within around 200 ms of the onset of the violation. Such findings raise the question of how it is possible to diagnose violations so quickly. This paper suggests that very rapid diagnosis of errors is possible specifically in situations where the diagnosis problem is tightly constrained by specific expectations generated before the critical word is presented. In an event-related potentials (ERP) study of visual sentence reading participants encountered violations of a word order constraint (...Max’s of...) that has elicited early ERP responses in previous studies. Across conditions the illicit sequence was held constant, while sentence context was used to manipulate the expectation for a noun following the possessor Max’s, by manipulating the possibility of ellipsis of the head noun. Results showed that the anterior negativity elicited by the word category violation was attenuated when the availability of ellipsis reduced the expectation for a noun in the position of the offending preposition of, with divergence between conditions starting around 200 ms after the onset of the violation. This suggests a role for structural expectations in accounting for very fast syntactic diagnosis processes.