Early Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) sensitive to animacy expectations in sentence comprehension are not overridden by context

Abstract

Wh-words in auditory sentences like "Who/What did Barbie push the ___ into?" generate expectations for animacy at the blank (e.g., a filled potential Wh-gap). Specifically, the animacy is expected to be opposite of the Wh-word ( “who” and “what” predict inanimate and animate nouns, respectively). Fontenau and van der Lely (2008) found Early Left Anterior Negativities (ELANs) when animacy matched Wh- animacy in typically developing individuals but not individuals with "Grammatical-Specific Language Impairment". However, to focus attention on the task, they added final noun phrases to violation items ("Who did Barbie push the clown into THE WALL?") but not to expected animacy items ("What did Barney push the clown into?"). We ask whether participants implicitly learn to predict sentence-final anomalies from animacy match. We tested this by presenting one group with the original contingency and another with the contingency reversed. Contra the learning hypothesis, we observed ELANs for both groups.


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