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Poster C23, Friday, August 17, 10:30 am – 12:15 pm, Room 2000AB

ERP responses reveal differences in how subject-verb agreement violations are resolved based on the grammatical class of the words involved

Carrie Jackson1, Patricia Schempp1, Janet G. van Hell1;1Pennsylvania State University

Cross-linguistically, agreement can mark structural relations between constituents in a sentence. Most research on subject-verb agreement, whereby the subject noun and verb must agree in number, has investigated how number marking on the subject noun phrase (NP) influences the subsequent processing of verb-number marking (see Molinaro et al., 2011, for review). Event-related potential (ERP) research has revealed that cross-linguistically, readers exhibit a P600 effect when encountering a verb that mismatches in number with the preceding subject NP (e.g., Tanner et al., 2014). Less research has investigated the reverse situation, in which number-marked verbs appear prior to the subject NP (but see Hagoort et al., 1993; Roehm et al., 2005). Moreover, most ERP research on subject-verb agreement has had participants make grammaticality judgements, even though such metalinguistic tasks may not reflect how readers process language in more naturalistic contexts. The present ERP study investigates how native German speakers process subject-verb agreement violations when comprehending German wh-questions, in which the number-marked verb appears before the subject NP, in the absence of making grammaticality judgements. Thirteen native German speakers read 36 sentences in each of the conditions outlined in (1)–(2) below. After each sentence, participants saw two pictures and chose which picture best represented the action of the target sentence. In masculine/plural conditions, like (1a) and (1b), subject-verb agreement was disambiguated as grammatical or ungrammatical on the definite article, as the definite article for masculine and neuter nouns in German (derMASC-SG or dasNEUT-SG “the”) is unambiguously singular in nominative case. In feminine/plural conditions, like (2a) and (2b), subject-verb agreement was not disambiguated as grammatical or ungrammatical until the noun (e.g., Frau “woman”), as the definite article for feminine singular and all plural nouns in German is the same (diePL/FEM-SG “the”) in nominative case. (1a) In welchem Bild kauftSG derMASC-SG Mann eine Tomate? (gram-masc/neut) (1b) *In welchem Bild kaufenPL derMASC-SG Mann eine Tomate? (ungram-masc/neut) "In which picture buys/*buy the man a tomato?" (2a) In welchem Bild spieltSG diePL/FEM-SG FrauSG die Gitarre? (gram-fem/plural) (2b) *In welchem Bild spielenPL diePL/FEM-SG FrauSG die Gitarre? (ungram-fem/plural) "In which picture plays/*play the woman the guitar?" For masculine/neuter sentences, ERPs timelocked to the definite article revealed a P600 effect in the 500-800ms time window for ungrammatical versus grammatical sentences, paralleling subject-verb agreement studies involving ungrammaticalities revealed via number-marked verbs (e.g., Tanner et al., 2014). On feminine/plural sentences, ERPs timelocked to the noun revealed a frontal positivity in the 500-800ms time window for ungrammatical versus grammatical sentences. This suggests that ERP responses for subject-verb agreement violations result in P600 effects traditionally associated with syntactic reanalysis (e.g., Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992), when such violations appear post-verbally on function words. However, when such violations initially appear on post-verbal subject nouns, the corresponding ERP response is better characterized as reflecting the revision of previous expectations regarding whether the subject noun will be singular or plural (e.g., Federmeier, 2007). Together, these results reveal subtle differences in how morphosyntactic dependencies are resolved during real-time language processing based on the grammatical class of the words involved.

Topic Area: Grammar: Syntax