Event-related brain potential evidence for animacy processing asymmetries during sentence comprehension

Mante S Nieuwland, Andrea E Martin, Manuel Carreiras

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The animacy distinction is deeply rooted in the language faculty. A key example is differential object marking, the phenomenon where animate sentential objects receive specific marking. We used event-related potentials to examine the neural processing consequences of case-marking violations on animate and inanimate direct objects in Spanish. Inanimate objects with incorrect prepositional case marker ‘a’ (‘al suelo’) elicited a P600 effect compared to unmarked objects, consistent with previous literature. However, animate objects without the required prepositional case marker (‘el obispo’) only elicited an N400 effect compared to marked objects. This novel finding, an exclusive N400 modulation by a straightforward grammatical rule violation, does not follow from extant neurocognitive models of sentence processing, and mirrors unexpected ‘‘semantic P600’’ effects for thematically problematic sentences. These results may reflect animacy asymmetry in competition for argument prominence: following the article, thematic interpretation difficulties are elicited only by unexpectedly animate objects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)151-158
Number of pages8
JournalBrain and Language
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


  • Sentence comprehension
  • Electrophysiology
  • Animacy
  • Case
  • Differential object marking
  • Spanish
  • Event-related potentials
  • N400
  • P600


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