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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

Summer 1993, Vol. 5, No. 3, Pages 335-344
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.1993.5.3.335)
© 1993 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dissociation of Brain Activity Related to Syntactic and Semantic Aspects of Language
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In psycholinguistic research, there has been considerable interest in understanding the interactions of difFerent types of linguistic information during language processing. For example, does syntactic information interact with semantic or pragmatic information at an early stage of language processing, or only at later stages in order to resolve ambiguities of language? Developing reliable measures of language processes such as syntax and semantics is important to address many of these theoretical issues in psycholinguistics. In the present study, event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded from healthy young subjects while they read pairs of words presented one word at a time. The ERPs for the second word of each pair were compared as a function of whether the preceding word was or was not (1) semantically related (i.e., synonyms; “semantic condition”) or (2) grammatically correct (“syntactic condition”). In the semantic condition the ERPs obtained to words preceded by nonsemantically related words elicited an N400 component that was maximal over centroparietal scalp regions. In contrast, in the syntactic condition the ERPs obtained to words preceded by grammatically incorrect articles or pronouns yielded a negativity with a later onset, and a frontopolar, left hemisphere scalp maximum. This replicates our previous findings of a syntactic negativity in a word pair design that was performed in the German language. Further, the present data provide scalp distributional information, which suggests that the syntactic negativity represents brain processes that are dissociable from the centroparietal N400 component. Thus, these findings provide strong evidence for a separate negative polarity ERP component that indexes syntactic aspects of language processing.