Edinburgh Research Explorer

Processing flexible form-to-meaning mappings: Evidence for enriched composition as opposed to indeterminacy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Related Edinburgh Organisations

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1244-1274
Number of pages31
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number8
Early online date1 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2013


Sometimes, the relationship between form and meaning in language is not one-to-one. Here, we used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to illuminate the neural correlates of such flexible syntax-semantics mappings during sentence comprehension by examining split-intransitivity. While some (rigid) verbs consistently select one auxiliary, other (flexible) verbs do not. German speakers read sentences including rigid and flexible verbs and the auxiliaries haben (HAVE) and sein (BE). In an additional condition, flexible verbs were presented with a telicity-inducing prefix that led them to select BE via the verb-prefix combination. Auxiliary selection violations engendered an N400-late positivity response for both rigid and prefixed verbs, thus suggesting that the processing system sets up an auxiliary-based expectation for particular verb classes. For unprefixed flexible verbs, average ERPs did not show differential effects of auxiliary choice. However, additional mixed-effects analyses for these verbs including by-participant and by-item acceptabilities as covariates revealed modulations of the N400 and late positivity for HAVE-trials via by-item and by-participant acceptabilities. We argue that the N400 reflects the degree of match between auxiliary choice and the lexical class of the verb, while two distinct positivity effects correlate with (1) a well-formedness categorisation and (2) the degree to which individual participants engage in enriched composition in order to render a flexible (telic) verb compatible with a particular auxiliary choice (HAVE). These results indicate that the gradient behaviour of flexible verbs is not due to indeterminacy, but rather to a higher propensity for enriched composition that results in the coercion of aspectual specification.

    Research areas

  • Language comprehension, Syntax-semantics interface, Split intransitivity, Enriched composition, Underspecification, Event-related brain potentials, AUXILIARY SELECTION, LANGUAGE COMPREHENSION, ASPECTUAL COERCION, SEMANTIC COMPOSITION, COMPLEMENT COERCION, INTRANSITIVE VERBS, BRAIN POTENTIALS, NEURAL BASIS

ID: 13142845