Electrophysiological evidence for two steps in syntactic analysis. Early automatic and late controlled processes

J Cogn Neurosci. 1999 Mar;11(2):194-205. doi: 10.1162/089892999563328.


In this study we examined the properties of the processes involved in the structural analysis of sentences using event-related brain potential measures (ERP). Previous research had shown two ERP components to correlate with phrase structure violations: an early left anterior negativity (ELAN), which is assumed to reflect first-pass parsing processes, and a late parietally distributed positivity (P600), assumed to reflect second-pass parsing processes. We hypothesized that the first-pass parsing processes are highly automatic, whereas second-pass parsing processes are more controlled. To test this hypothesis we varied the proportion of correct sentences and sentences containing phrase structure violations with incorrect sentences being either of a low (20% violation) or a high (80% violation) proportion. Results showed that the early left anterior negativity was elicited and equally pronounced under both proportion conditions. By contrast, the late positivity was elicited for a low proportion of incorrect sentences only. This data pattern suggests that first-pass parsing processes are automatic, whereas second-pass parsing processes are under participants' strategic control.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials*
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Language Tests
  • Linguistics*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Random Allocation