Journal of Psycholinguistic Research

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 71–98

Comprehending Semantic and Grammatical Violations in Italian. N400 and P600 Comparison with Visual and Auditory Stimuli



Arguments about the existence of language-specific neural systems and specifically about the independence of syntactic and semantic processing have focused on the event-related brain measures (ERPs) as tool to monitoring moment-by-moment the cognitive processes underlaid. In the present experiments, the available evidence indicates that the ERP response to semantic anomalies is at least partially distinct from the ERP response to syntactic anomalies and that two distinct processes are activated in sentences comprehension. ERPs were recorded from 10 electrodes while subjects read (Experiment 1) or listened (Experiment 2) to sentences containing semantic or syntactic violations. Final-words that were inconsistent with the sentence context elicited a negative-going wave at about 400 ms poststimulus, whereas penultimate-word incongruous with the grammatical structure (subject–verb non-agreement) elicited a positive-going wave about 600 ms poststimulus. No differences based on the perceptual modality of the stimulus (visual or auditory) nor different ERP correlates as a function of task-relevance (explicit/implicit task induction) were found. The implications of our results for Italian language are explained.


ERP measure semantic and syntactic violations task-relevance perceptual modality 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Altmann, G.T.M., Garnham, A., Dennis, Y. 1992Avoiding the garden path: Eye movements in contextJournal of Memory and Language31685712Google Scholar
  2. Ardal, S., Donald, M.W., Meuter, R., Muldrew, S., Luce, M. 1990Brain response to semantic incongruity in bilingualsBrain and Language39187205PubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Balconi, M. (2000). Oltre la sonoritá Correlati percettivi, cognitivi e comunicativi nell’analisi dei fenomeni di sinestesia e fisiognomia acustica. Proceedings of the Annual National Congress of Experimental Psychology , Carlo Delfino Editore, Alghero, Italy 23–25Google Scholar
  4. Balconi, M. (2001a). Phonological, syntactic and semantic information processing. ERPs measure of contextual constraints. Proceedings of VIIth European Congress of Psychology , London, Great Britain: European Federation of Professional Psychologists Association, 124–127Google Scholar
  5. Balconi, M. (2001b). Comparing phonosimbolic and semantic information processing in linguistic decoding. ERPs measure from neuropsychological and communicative perspective. Symposium on Social life and communication: An element of understanding in the evolution of language , Rennes, France: Universitá de Rennes. 154–158Google Scholar
  6. Balconi, M. 2003Face-selective processing and the effect of pleasant and unpleasant emotional expressions on ERP correlatesInternational Journal of Psychophysiology496774PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Barber, H., Carreiras, M. (2002). ERP components associated to gender and number agreement processing. Paper presented at AMLaP 2002 , Tenerife, Spain: AMLaPGoogle Scholar
  8. Bentin, S., Kutas, M., Hillyard, S.A. 1993Electrophysiological evidence for task effects on semantic priming in auditory word processingPsychophysiology30161169PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown, C.M., Berkum Jos, J.A., Hagoort, P. 2000Discourse before gender: An event-related brain potentials study on the interplay of semantic and syntactic information during spoken language understandingJournal of Psycholinguistic Research295368PubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Cacciari, C., Padovani, R. (2002). The role of morphological transparency in assigning a gender to Italian words. Paper presented at AMLaP 2002 , Tenerife, Spain: AMLaPGoogle Scholar
  11. Clifton, C., Speer, S., Abney, S. 1991Parsing arguments Phrase structure and argument structure as determinants of initial parsing decisionJournal of Memory and Language30251271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Coulson, S., King, J.V., Kutas, M. 1998Expect the unexpected: Event-related brain response to morphosyntactic violationsLanguage and Cognitive Processes132158Google Scholar
  13. Vincenzi, M., Di Matteo, R. 2001ERPs e linguaggio: Correlati elttrofisiologici della comprensione di frasi dichiarativeGiornale Italiano di Psicologia3519554Google Scholar
  14. Ferreira, F., Clifton, C. 1986The independence of syntactic processingJournal of Memory and Language25348368Google Scholar
  15. Frazier, L. (1987). Sentence processing: A tutorial. In M. Coltheart (Ed.), Attention and performance XII (pp. 45–78). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum AssociatesGoogle Scholar
  16. Friederici, A.D. 2002Towards a neural basis of auditory sentence processingTrends in Cognitive Science67884CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. García-Albea, J. E. (1999). An ERP study of S–V number agreement in Spanish. Poster presented at the 12th Annual CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Procesing , La Jolla, CAGoogle Scholar
  18. Garnsey, S. M. (1993). Event-related brain potentials in the study of language: An introduction. In M. Garnsey (Ed.), [Special issue]. Language and Cognitive Processes, 8 (4): 337–357.Google Scholar
  19. Garnsey, S. M., Tanenhaus, M. K., Chapman, R. M. 1989Evoked potentials and the study of sentence comprehensionJournal of Psycholinguistic Research185160CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Gunter, T. C., Jackson, J. L., Mulder, G. 1992An electrophysiological study of semantic processing in young and middle-aged academicsPsychophysiology293854PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Hagoort, P., Brown, C. M. 2000ERP effects of listening to speech: Semantic ERP effectsNeuropsychologia3815181530PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Hagoort, P. J., Brown, C., Groothusen, J. 1993The syntactic positive shift (SPS) as an ERP measure of syntactic processingLanguage and Cognitive Proceses8439483Google Scholar
  23. Holcomb, P. J. 1986ERP correlates of semantic facilitationElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, Supplement38320322Google Scholar
  24. Holcomb, P. J., Neville, H. J. 1990Auditory and visual semantic priming in lexical decision: A comparison using event-related brain potentialsLanguage and Cognitive Processes5281312Google Scholar
  25. Jasper, H. H. 1958The ten-twenty electrode system of the International FederationElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology10371375Google Scholar
  26. Kluender, R., Kutas, M. 1993Subjacency as a processing phenomenonLanguage and Cognitive Processes8573633Google Scholar
  27. Koyama, S., Nageishi, Y., Shimokochi, M., Hokama, M., Miyazato, Y., Miyatani, M., Ogura, C. 1991The N400 component of event-related potentials in schizophrenic patients: A preliminary studyElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology78124132CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Kutas, M. 1987Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) elicited during rapid serial visual presentation of congruous and incongruous sentencesElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology40406411Google Scholar
  29. Kutas, M. 1993In the company of other words: Electrophysiological evidence for single word versus sentence context effectLanguage and Cognitive Processes8533572Google Scholar
  30. Kutas, M., Federmeier, K. D. 2000Electrophysiology reveals semantic memory use in language comprehensionTrends in Cognitive Science4463470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kutas, M., Hillyard, S. A. 1980Reading senseless sentences: Brain potentials reflect semantic incongruityScience207203205PubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Kutas, M., Hillyard, S. A. 1984Brain potentials during reading reflect word expectancy and semantic associationNature307161163PubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Kutas, M., Hillyard, S. A., Gazzaniga, M. S. 1988Processing of semantic anomaly by right and left hemispheres of commissurotomy patientsBrain111553576PubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Kutas, M., Neville, H. J., Holcomb, P. J. 1987A preliminary comparison of N400 response to semantic anomalies during reading, listening, and signingElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, Supplement39325330Google Scholar
  35. Kutas, M., Petten, C. 1988

    Event-related brain potential studies of language

    Ackles, P.Jennings, J. R.Coles, M. G. H. eds. Advances in psychophysiologyJAI PressGreenwich, CTpp 139–187.
    Google Scholar
  36. Kutas, M., Petten, C. 1994

    Psycholinguistic electrified. Event-relatedbrainpotentialinvestigation

    Gernsbacher, M.A. eds. Handobook of psycholinguisticAcademic PressSan Diego, CA82143
    Google Scholar
  37. Kutas, M., Petten, C., Besson, M. 1994Event-related potential asymmetries during the reading of sentencesElectroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology69218233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. MacDonald, M. C., Pearlmutter, N. J., Seidenberg, M. S. 1994The lexical nature of syntactic ambiguity resolutionPsychological Review101676703CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. McClelland, J. L., St John, M., Taraban, R. 1989Sentence comprehension: A parallel distributed processing approachLanguage and Cognitive Processes4287335Google Scholar
  40. Mitchell, D. C., Holmes, V. M. 1985The role of specific information about the verb in parsing sentence with local structural ambiguityJournal of Memory and Language24542559CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Münte, T. F., Heinze, H. -J., Matzke, M., Wieringa, B. M., Johannes, S. 1998Brain potentials and syntactic violations revisited: No evidence for the specificity of the syntactic positive shiftNeuropsychologia36217226CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Neville, H., Nicol, J. L., Barss, A., Forster, K. I., Garrett, M. F. 1991Syntactically based sentence processing classes: Evidence from event-related brain potentialsJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience3151165Google Scholar
  43. Nobre, A.C., McCarthy, G. 1993Modulation of semantic processing by spatial selective attentionElectroencephalography Clinical Neurophysiology88210219Google Scholar
  44. Osterhout, L. 1990Event-related brain potentials elicited during sentence comprehensionTufts UniversityMedfordUnpublished doctoral dissertationGoogle Scholar
  45. Osterhout, L., Hagoort, P. 1999A superficial resemblance does not necessarily mean you are part of the family: Counterarguments to Coulson, King, and Kutas (1998) in the P600/SPS-P300 debateLanguage and Cognitive Processes14114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Osterhout, L., Holcomb, P. J. 1992Event-related brain potentials elicited by syntactic anomalyJournal of Memory and Language31785806CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Osterhout, L., Holcomb, P. J. 1993Event-related potentials and syntactic anomaly: Evidence of anomaly detection during the perception of continuous speechLanguage and Cognitive Processes8413439Google Scholar
  48. Osterhout, L., Holcomb, P. J. 1995

    Event-related potentials and language comprehension

    Rugg, M. D.Coles, M. G. H. eds. Electrophysiology of mind.Oxford University PressOxford NY
    Google Scholar
  49. Osterhout, L., Holcomb, P. J., Swinney, D. A. 1994Brain potentials elicited by garde-path sentences: Evidence of the application of verb information during parsingJournal of Experimental psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition20786803Google Scholar
  50. Osterhout, L., McKinnon, R., Bersick, M., Corey, V. 1996On the language-specificity of the brain response to syntactic anomalies: Is the syntactic positive shift a member of the P300 familyJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience8507526Google Scholar
  51. Osterhout, L., Nicol, J. 1999On the distinctiveness, independence, and time course of the brain responses to syntactic and semantic anomaliesLanguage and Cognitive Processes3283317Google Scholar
  52. Rayner, K., Garrod, S., Perfetti, C. A. 1992Discourse influences during parsing are delayedCognition45109139PubMedGoogle Scholar
  53. Rugg, M. D., Coles, G. 1995Electrophysiology of mindOxford University PressOxford, NYGoogle Scholar
  54. Spivey-Knowlton, M., Tanenhaus, M.K. 1994

    Referential context and syntactic ambiguity resolution

    Clifton, C.,Jr.Frazier, L.Rayner, K. eds. Perspectives on sentence processing.Lawrence Erlbaum AssociatesHillsdale NJ415439
    Google Scholar
  55. Taraban, R., McClelland, J. L. 1990

    Parsing and comprehension: A multiple-constraint view

    Balota, D.Flores d’Arcais, G. B.Rayner, K. eds. Comprehension processes in readingLawrence Erlbaum AssociatesHillsdale, HJ211234
    Google Scholar
  56. Petten, C. 1993A comparison of lexical and sentence-level context effects in event-related potentialsLanguage and Cognitive Processes8485531Google Scholar
  57. Petten, C., Kutas, M. 1991Influences of semantic and syntactic context on open- and closed-class wordMemory and Cognition1995112Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCatholic UniversityMilanItaly
  2. 2.Bioengineering Laboratory, IRCCSE. Medea InstituteLeccoItaly

Personalised recommendations