Is animacy special? ERP correlates of semantic violations and animacy violations in sentence processing

Brain Res. 2011 Jan 12;1368:208-21. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.10.070. Epub 2010 Oct 26.


Animacy is often conceived as a special semantic feature because of its relevance to thematic and syntactic processing. This study uses event-related brain potentials to investigate whether violations of the expected animacy value of a noun are processed differently from semantic violations which preserve the expected animacy value in a situation in which the animate/inanimate distinction has no consequences for thematic or syntactic processing. The language under test is Polish, a language in which the animate-inanimate distinction is reflected in the inflection of nouns. We constructed short stories such that either an animate direct object noun is highly expected in the story's final sentence, or an inanimate direct object. This noun appears in one of three conditions: (a) congruent, i.e. fitting the preceding context, (b) semantic violation without a violation of the expected animacy value, or (c) animacy violation, i.e. a violation of the expected animacy value. Semantic violations and animacy violations elicited a biphasic N400/P600 pattern. The N400 effect had the same amplitude for the two types of violation, while the P600 elicited by animacy violations had a significantly higher amplitude than the P600 elicited by semantic violations. These results indicate that animacy is processed differently from other semantic features even in syntactically and thematically unambiguous positions in a sentence.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Comprehension
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Semantics*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult