When syntax meets semantics

Psychophysiology. 1997 Nov;34(6):660-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1997.tb02142.x.


Three experiments concerning the processing of syntactic and semantic violations were conducted. Event-related potentials (ERPs) showed that semantic violations elicited an N400 response, whereas syntactic violations elicited two early negativities (150 and 350 ms) and a P600 response. No interaction between the semantic and early syntactic ERP effects was found. Sentence complexity and violation probability (25% vs. 75%) affected only the P600 and not the early negativities. The probability effect was taken as evidence that the P600 resembles the P3b. The temporal order of word processing in a sentence as suggested by the data was such that a more automatic syntactic analysis was performed (earlier syntactic-related negativities) in parallel with a semantic analysis (N400), after which a syntactic reanalysis was performed (P600). A reanalysis interpretation of the P600 could explain why the extent of the reanalysis differed with syntactic complexity and probability of ungrammaticality.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Electrooculography
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Semantics*