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


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 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Allbritton, D. W., McKoon, G., & Ratcliff, R. (1996). Reliability of prosodic cues for resolving syntactic ambiguities. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 22, 714–735.Google Scholar
  2. Alter, K., Steinhauer, K., & Friederici, A. D. (1998). De-accentuation: linguistic environments and prosodic realizations. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, (Vol. 3) (pp. 551–554). Canberra: Australian Speech Science and Technology Association (ASSTA).Google Scholar
  3. Bader, M. (1994). Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Stuttgart, Germany.Google Scholar
  4. Bader, M. (1998). Prosodic influences on reading syntactically ambiguous sentences. In J. D. Feder and F. Ferreira (Eds.), Reanalysis in sentence Processing (pp. 1–46). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar
  5. Bader, M., & Meng, M. (1999). Subject-object ambiguities in German embedded clauses: An across-the-board compariso. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 28, 121–143.Google Scholar
  6. Baldwin, R. S., & Coady, J. M. (1978). Psycholinguistic approaches to a theory of punctuation, Journal of Reading Behavior, 10, 363–375.Google Scholar
  7. Baum, S., & Pell, M. (1999). The neural basis of speech prosody: Insights from lesion studies and neuroimaging. Aphasiology, 13, 581–608.Google Scholar
  8. Beach, C. M. (1991). The interpretation of prosodic patterns at points of syntactic structure ambiguity: Evidence for cue trading relations. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 644–663.Google Scholar
  9. Beckman, M. (1996). The parsing of prosody. Language and Cognitive Processes, 11, 17–67.Google Scholar
  10. Bergien, A. (1994). On the historical background of English punctuation. Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 48, 243–250.Google Scholar
  11. Böhme, G. (1995). Ist die Dudenregelung zur Interpunktion amtlich? Zur Geschichte der amtlichen Grundlagen der Zeichensetzung, Sprachwissenschaft, 20, 323–335.Google Scholar
  12. Bradley, L., & Bryant, P. E. (1978). Difficulties in auditory organization as a possible cause of reading backwardness, Nature London, 271, 746–747.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Brown, C. M., & Hagoort, P. (2000). The Interaction of prosodic, syntactic and semantic information during spoken sentence understanding: An electrophysiological investigation. Paper presented at the 13th Annual meeting of the CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, La Jolla, California.Google Scholar
  14. Bruthiaux, P. (1993). Knowing when to stop: Investigating the nature of punctuation. Language and Communication, 13, 27–43.Google Scholar
  15. Chafe, W. (1988). Punctuation and the prosody of written language. Written Communication, 5, 396–426.Google Scholar
  16. Chwilla, D. J., Brown, C. M., & Hagoort, P. (1995). The N400 as a function of the level of processing. Psychophysiology, 32, 274–285.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Cooper, W. E., & Paccia-Cooper, J. (1980). Syntax and Speech. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Coulson, S., King, J. W., & Kutas, M. (1998). Expect the unexpected: Event-related brain response to morphosyntactic violations. Language and Cognitive Processes, 13, 21–58.Google Scholar
  19. Cutler, A., Dahan, D., & van Donselaar, W. (1997). Prosody in the comprehension of spoken language: A literature review. Language and Speech, 40, 141–201.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Donchin, E., & Coles, M. (1988). Is the P300 component a manifestation of context updating? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 11, 357–374.Google Scholar
  21. Dudenredaktion. (1973/1996). Der Grosse Duden: Rechtsschreibung. Mannheim: Bibliographisches Institut AG.Google Scholar
  22. Ferreira, F., & Henderson, J. M. (1991) Recovery from misanalyses of garden path sentences. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 725–745.Google Scholar
  23. Fodor, J. D. (1998). Learning to parse? Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 27, 285–319.Google Scholar
  24. Fodor, J. D., & Inoue, A. (1994). The diagnosis and cure of garden paths. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 23, 407–459.Google Scholar
  25. Frazier, L. (1978). Doctoral Dissertation. University of Connecticut.Google Scholar
  26. Frazier, L. (1987). Sentence processing: A tutorial review. In M. Coltheart (Ed.), Attention and performance XII. (pp. 559–586). Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  27. Frazier, L., & Rayner, K. (1982). Making and correcting errors during sentence comprehension: Eye movements in the analysis of structurally ambiguous sentences. Cognitive Psychology, 14, 178–210.Google Scholar
  28. Friederici, A. D. (1995). The time course of syntactic activation during language processing: A model based on neuropsychological and neurophysiological data. Brain and Language, 50, 259–281.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Friederici, A. D., & Frisch, S. (2000). Verb-argument structure processing: The role of verb-specific and argument-specific information. Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 476–507.Google Scholar
  30. Friederici, A. D., & Mecklinger, A. (1996). Syntactic parsing as revealed by brain responses: First-pass and second-pass parsing processes. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 25, 157–176.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Friederici, A. D., Mecklinger, A., Spencer, K. M., Steinhauer, K., & Donchin, E. (2001). Syntactic parsing preferences and their on-line revisions: A spatio-temporal analysis of event-related brain potentials. Cognitive Brain Research, 11, 305–323.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Friederici, A. D., Steinhauer, K., & Frisch, S. (1999). Lexical integration: Sequential effects of syntactic and semantic information. Memory and Cognition, 27, 438–453.Google Scholar
  33. Friederici, A. D., Steinhauer, K., Mecklinger, A., & Meyer, M. (1998). Working memory constraints on syntactic ambiguity resolution as revealed by electrical brain responses. Biological Psychology, 47, 193–221.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Gandour, J. (2000) Frontiers of brain mapping of speech prosody. Brain and Language,71, 75–77.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Gorrell, P. (1995). syntax and parsing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Gunter, T. C., Stowe, L. A., & Mulder, G. (1997). When syntax meets semantics. Psychophysiology, 34, 660–676.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Hagoort, P., Brown, C., & Groothusen, J. (1993). The syntactic positive shift as an ERPmeasure of syntactic processing. Language and Cognitive Processes, 8,439–483.Google Scholar
  38. Hill, R. L. (1996). Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Dundee, Scotland.Google Scholar
  39. Hill, R. L., & Murray, W. S. (1997). Poster presented at the 10th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, Santa Monica, California.Google Scholar
  40. Hill, R. L., & Murray, W. S. (1998). Poster presented at the 11th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, New Brunswick, New Jersey.Google Scholar
  41. Hopf, J.-M., Bayer, J., Bader, M., & Meng, M. (1998). Event-related brain potentials and case information in syntactic ambiguities. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10, 264–280.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. Hruska, C., Steinhauer, K., Alter, K., & Steube, A. (2000). ERP effects of sentence accents and violations of the information structure. Poster presented at the 13th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, La Jolla, California.Google Scholar
  43. Johnson, R. Jr. (1993). On the neural generators of the P300 component of the event-related potential. Psychophysiology,30, 90–97.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Kjelgaard, M. M., & Speer, S. R. (1999). Prosodic facilitation and interference in the resolution of temporary syntactic closure ambiguity. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 153–194.Google Scholar
  45. Kutas, M., & Hillyard, S. A. (1980). Reading senseless sentences: Brain potential reflect semantic incongruity. Science, 207, 203–205.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. MacDonald, M. C. (1994). Probabilistic constraints and syntactic ambiguity resolution. Language and Cognitive Processes,9, 157–202.Google Scholar
  47. Marslen-Wilson, W. S., Tyler, L. K., Warren, P., Genier, P., & Lee, C. S. (1992). Prosodic effects in minimal attachment. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45A, 73–87.Google Scholar
  48. Mecklinger, A., Schriefers, H., Steinhauer, K., & Friederici, A. D. (1995). Processing relative clauses varying on syntactic and semantic dimensions: An analysis with event-related potentials. Memory and Cognition, 23, 477–494.Google Scholar
  49. Meng, M., & Bader, M. (in press a). The role of syntactic features in syntactic ambiguity resolution. In M. DeVincenzi & V. Lombardo (Eds.), Architectures and mechanisms of language processing in a multilingual perspective. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar
  50. Meng, M., & Bader, M. (in press b). Mode of disambiguation and garden path strength: An investigation of subject-object ambiguities in German. Language and Speech.Google Scholar
  51. Mitchell, D. C. (1987). Reading and syntactic analysis. In J. R. Beech & A. M. (Eds.), Colley cognitive approaches to reading (pp. 87–112). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  52. Mitchell, D. C., & Holmes, V. M. (1985). The role of specific information about the verb in parsing sentences with local structural ambiguity. Journal of Memory and Language, 24, 542–559.Google Scholar
  53. O'Connell, D. C., & Kowal, S. H. (1986). Use of punctuation for pausing: Oral readings by German radio homilists. Psychological Research, 48, 93–98.Google Scholar
  54. Oldfield, R. C. (1975). The assessment and analysis of handedness: The Edinburgh inventory. Neuropsychologia, 9, 97–113.Google Scholar
  55. Osterhout, L., & Hagoort, P. (1999). A superficial resemblance does not necessarily mean you are part of the family: Counterarguments to Coulson, King and Kutas (1998) in the P600/SPS-P300 debate. Language and Cognitive Processes, 14, 1–14.Google Scholar
  56. Osterhout, L., & Holcomb, P. J. (1992). Event-related brain potentials elicited by syntactic anomaly. Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 785–804.Google Scholar
  57. Patterson, K. E., & Coltheart, V. (1987). Phonological processes in reading: A tutorial review. In M. Coltheart (Ed.), Attention and performance XII: The psychology of reading (pp. 209–214). Hove, UK: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  58. Patel, A. D., Gibson, E., Ratner, J., Besson, M., & Holcomb, P. J. (1998). Processing syntactic relations in language and music: An event-related potential study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 10, 717–733.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Perfetti, C. A. (1994). Psycholinguistics and reading ability. In M. A. Gernsbacher (Ed.), Handbook of Psycholinguistics (pp. 849–894). San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  60. Pynte, J., & Prieur, B. (1996). Prosodic breaks and attachment decisions in sentence parsing. Language and Cognitive Processes, 11, 165–192.Google Scholar
  61. Ross, E. D. (1997). The aprosodias. In T. E. Feinberg & M. J. Farah (Eds.), Behavioral Neurology and Neuropsychology (pp. 699–704). New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  62. Schafer, A. (1997). Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Google Scholar
  63. Schafer, A. J., Speer, S. R., Warren, P., & White, S. D. (2000). Intonational disambiguation in sentence production and comprehension. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 29, 169–182.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  64. Selkirk, E. (1984). Phonology and syntax: The relation between sound and structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  65. Share, D. L. (1999). Phonological recoding and orthographic learning: A direct test of the selfteaching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 72, 95–129.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Silverman, K., Beckman, M., Pitrelli, J., Ostendorf, M., wightman, C., Price, P., Pierrehumbert, J., & Hirschberg, J. (1992). ToBI: a standard for labeling English prosody. Proceedings of the International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, Banff, 12–16 October.Google Scholar
  67. Sonntag, G. P., & Portele, T. (1998). PURR-A method for prosody evaluation and investigation. Computer Speech and Language, 12, 437–451.Google Scholar
  68. Speer, S. R., Kjelgaard, M. M., & Dobbroth, K. M. (1996). The influence of prosodic structure on the resolution of temporary syntactic closure ambiguities. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 25, 247–268.Google Scholar
  69. Steinhauer, K., Alter, K., & Friederici, A. D. (1998). Don't blame it (all) on the pause: Further ERP evidence for a prosody-induced garden path in running speech. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, Vol. 5, (pp. 2187–2190). Canberra: Australian Speech Science and Technology Association (ASSTA).Google Scholar
  70. Steinhauer, K., Alter, K., & Friederici, A. D. (1999a). Brain potentials indicate immediate use of prosodic cues in natural speech processing. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 191–196.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Steinhauer, K., Alter, K., & Friederici, A. D. (1999b). Written prosodic boundaries? Poster presented at the 12th CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing, New York.Google Scholar
  72. Steinhauer, K., Mecklinger, A., Friederici, A. D., & Meyer, M. (1997). Probability and strategy: An ERP study on the processing of syntactic anomalies. Zeitschrift für Experimentelle Psychologie, 44, 305–331.Google Scholar
  73. Streeter, L. A. (1978). Acoustic determinants of phrase boundary location. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 64, 1582–1592.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  74. Tecce, J. J., & Cattanach, L. (1987). Contingent negative variation (CNV), In E. Niedermeyer, & F. Lopes da Silva (Eds.), Electro-Encephalography: Basic principles, clinical applications and related fields (pp. 658–679). Munich: Urban & Schwarzenberg.Google Scholar
  75. Van Petten, C., & Bloom, P. (1999). Speech boundaries, syntax and the brain. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 103–104.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. Van Petten, C., & Kutas, M. (1991). Influences of semantic and syntactic context on open-and closed-class words. Memory and Cognition, 19, 95–112.Google Scholar
  77. Warren, P. (1999). Prosody and language processing. In S. Garrod & M. Pickering, (Eds.) Language processing (pp. 155–188). Hove: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  78. Warren, P., Grabe, E., & Nolan, F. (1995). Prosody, phonology, and parsing in closure ambiguities. Language and Cognitive Processes, 10, 457–486.Google Scholar
  79. Watt, S. M., & Murray, W. S. (1996). Prosodic form and parsing commitment. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 25, 291–318.Google Scholar

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

Personalised recommendations