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The Semantic Processing of Syntactic Structure in Sentence Comprehension


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Poster presented at the International Conference on Asian Language Processing (Hong Kong, 2005)

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The Semantic Processing of Syntactic Structure in Sentence Comprehension

  1. 1. The Semantic Processing of Syntactic Structure in Sentence Comprehension: An ERP StudyZheng Ye1, Weidong Zhan2, Xiaolin Zhou1, 31 Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing, China, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, Beijing, China3 National Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, ChinaThe main purpose of the present study is to provide online evidencefrom Chinese for the existence and use of construction-basedsemantics in sentence comprehension. To achieve this aim werecorded ERPs from the scalp while comprehenders read sentencesthat contained either lexico-semantic mismatch between the verb andits object or the purported construction-based semantic mismatchbetween the syntactic structure and the verb. The Chinese languagehas a formal grammatical structure called the ba construction thatmakes it relatively easy to draw a contrast between constructional-based and lexical-based semantic violations. As proposed by Chineselinguists, the ba construction has the abstract meanings such as“disposition” or “causation”, and only transitive verbs which encodesuch meaningsare permitted to appear in the construction (Chao, 1968;Lü, 1984; Wang, 1943). This experiment had three crucial conditions.(1) 嫌犯把冰毒暗藏在角落里 [The suspect concealed the drug in thenook].(2) 特务把炸弹梳理在办公楼 [The secret agent combed the bomb in theoffice building].(3)市民把名画欣赏在博物馆。[The citizens enjoyed the famous paintingin the museum.].In the baseline condition (1), a correct ba sentence represents an eventin which the grammatical subject always describes the agent (e.g.,xianfan, the suspect), i.e., the entity intentionally performing the action,and the object (bingdu, the drug) is the patient, i.e., the entityundergoing the action, while the prepositional phrase indicates location.In the lexical violation condition (2), the verb (e.g., combed) cannot beused felicitously in conjunction with the subject (e.g., the secret agent)and object (e.g., the bomb) but could occur in the ba construction iffelicitous subjects and objects are chosen. In the construction violationcondition (3), the verb does not satisfy semantic requirements of the baconstruction, even though it can occur felicitously with the same subjectand object in the “Subject-VP-Object” construction.Results & DiscussionERPs for critical verbs in the three conditions are displayed in the leftfigure. Distributions of the negativities between 300 and 600 ms post-onset in the lexico-semantic and the constructional violation conditionare shown in the right figure. Lexico-semantic violations elicited awidely distributed N400 (over both anterior and and posterior regions, p< .01) which was very similar to those observed in other languagessuch as English, Dutch, and German . ERP responses to constructionalviolations showed an N400-like pattern over posterior sites (p < .05).Both the lexico-semantic and the constructional N400s peaked around400 ms post-onset. However, the lexical N400 was more negative thanthe constructional N400 over anterior (p < .05) and posterior sites (p< .01).More importantly, the observed N400-like effect in response to theAbstractEarlier studies have demonstrated that semantic violations of lexical orsentence-level constraints elicit N400 effects in event-related potentials(ERPs) in online sentence processing. The present experimentexamined brain responses to verbs violating semantic constraintsspecified by a syntactic structure, contrasting them with those elicitedby verbs violating lexico-semantic constraints. The construction-basedviolations gave rise to a posterior N400, while the lexical-basedviolations produced a much stronger N400 with a broader scalpdistribution. These findings suggest that the integration of verb meaninginto prior sentence context is influenced not only by lexical-levelsemantic information but also by semantic properties of the syntacticstructure in which the verb appears. The study provided onlineevidence supporting the constructionist theories which claim thatsyntactic structures (constructions) may have their own (abstract)meanings, independent of the meanings of their constituent words.IntroductionThe past 15 years witnessed the emergence of a new family oflinguistic approaches to the language system, namely constructionistapproaches, which share certain fundamental ideas but contrast sharply,in other ways, with the mainstream generative approaches introducedby Chomsky in 1957. The latter approaches adhere to the dichotomybetween syntactic structures and semantic functions where syntacticstructures are characterized by increasing layers of abstractnesswithout independent meaning and sentence meanings are claimed toderive primarily from meanings of content words.The constructionist approaches, on the other hand, hold that there is noprincipled divide between “lexicon” and “rules”, and syntactic structuresare psychologically real pairings of form and meaning (Goldberg, 1995,1997, 2003; 2005; Goldberg & Jackendoff, 2004; Jackendoff, 2002).The syntactic structures (or more precisely, the phrasal constructions),such as such as idioms, partially lexically filled patterns (e.g.,convariational-conditional constructions), or even fully general linguisticpatterns (e.g., ditransitive constructions, passive, topicalization andrelative clauses), can have their own semantics, independent of themeanings of their constituent words. Syntactic structures are notepiphenomenal products of universal principals and language-specificparameters, as suggested by generative approaches. Rather, differentformal structures are associated with subtly different abstract meanings,and these construction-based meanings play a crucial role, over andabove word meanings, in sentence interpretation. For example, anEnglish ditransitive sentence, such as “Joe painted Sally a picture”, hasthe abstract meaning of the volitionality of the agent and this putssemantic constraints on the recipient. Existing supporting evidence forconstructionist approaches of sentence comprehension has come, sofar, exclusively from offline tasks, such as syntactic priming or violation indicates that the processing systemhasdifficulties in integrating a verb that does not satisfy the semanticconstraints imposed by the ba construction. This finding is in line withrecent linguistic (e.g., Croft, 2001; Culicover, 1999; Fillmore et al., 1988;Goldberg, 1995, 1997, 2003, 2005; Jackendoff, 2002) andpsycholinguistic research (e.g., Ahrens, 1995; Bencini & Goldberg,2000; Chang et al., 2003; Griffin & Weinstein-Tull, 2003; Hare &Goldberg, 1999; Kaschak & Glenberg, 2000) focusing on semantics ofsyntactic structures. It has been claimed that meanings can beextracted from syntactic structures independent of the words thatinhabit them. These abstract semantic properties of syntactic structures,such as causation, transfer and so forth, play a fundamental role indetermining which verbs can appear in those structures. In the presentstudy, the ba construction required a verb of certain thematic properties,i.e., verbs with a sense of disposal or causation (Chao, 1968/1979; Lü,1984; Wang, 1943). When encountering a transitive verb without suchan obligatory meaning as in our constructional violation condition, theprocessing system failed to make the verb-construction pairing withoutcausing anomalous meanings at the sentence level, resulting in anN400-like effect. Note that, this effect could not be simply due to a locallexico-semantic violation between the verb and its arguments (i.e., thesubject and object) since they fit with each other perfectly in the SVOform without the ba particle.