Journal of Psycholinguistic Research

, Volume 30, Issue 3, pp 267–295 | Cite as

Prosodic Boundaries, Comma Rules, and Brain Responses: The Closure Positive Shift in ERPs as a Universal Marker for Prosodic Phrasing in Listeners and Readers

  • Karsten Steinhauer
  • Angela D. Friederici
Article

Abstract

Just as the false comma in this sentence, shows punctuation can influence sentence processing considerably. Pauses and other prosodic cues in spoken language serve the same function of structuring the sentence in smaller phrases. However, surprisingly little effort has been spent on the question as to whether both phenomena rest on the same mechanism and whether they are equally efficient in guiding parsing decisions. In a recent study, we showed that auditory speech boundaries evoke a specific positive shift in the listeners' event-related brain potentials (ERPs) that indicates the sentence segmentation and resulting changes in the understanding of the utterance (Steinhauer et al., 1999a). Here, we present three ERP reading experiments demonstrating that the human brain processes commas in a similar manner and that comma perception depends crucially on the reader's individual punctuation habits. Main results of the study are: (1) Commas can determine initial parsing as efficiently as speech boundaries because they trigger the same prosodic phrasing covertly, although phonological representations seem to be activated to a lesser extent. (2) Independent of the input modality, this phrasing is reflected online by the same ERP component, namely the Closure Positive Shift (CPS). (3) Both behavioral and ERP data suggest that comma processing varies with the readers' idiosyncratic punctuation habits. (4) A combined auditory and visual ERP experiment shows that the CPS is also elicited both by delexicalized prosody and while subjects replicate prosodic boundaries during silent reading. (5) A comma-induced reversed garden path turned out to be much more difficult than the classical garden path. Implications for psycholinguistic models and future ERP research are discussed.

punctuation comma processing covert prosody event-related brain potentials ERP closure positive shift CPS P600 reversed garden path 

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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Karsten Steinhauer
    • 1
  • Angela D. Friederici
    • 2
  1. 1.Brain and Language Lab, Department of NeuroscienceGeorgetown UniversityWashington DC
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute of Cognitive NeuroscienceLeipzigGermany

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