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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00376

Novel ERP Evidence for Processing Differences between Negative and Positive Polarity Items in German

  • 1University of Osnabrück, Germany

One unresolved question about polarity sensitivity in theoretical linguistics concerns whether and to what extent negative and positive polarity items are parallel. Using event-related brain potentials (ERPs), previous studies found N400 and/or P600 components for negative and positive polarity violations with inconsistent results. We report on an ERP study of German polarity items. Both negative and positive polarity violations elicited biphasic N400/P600 effects relative to correct polarity conditions. Furthermore, negative polarity violations elicited a P600-only effect relative to positive polarity violations. The lack of a graded N400 effect indicates that both kinds of violations involve similar semantic processing costs. We attribute the increase in P600 amplitude of negative polarity violations relative to positive polarity violations to their different nature: the former are syntactic anomalies triggering structural reanalysis, whereas the latter are pragmatic oddities inducing discourse reanalysis. We conclude that negative and positive polarity violations involve at least partly distinct mechanisms.

Keywords: Polarity item, negation, ERP, German, syntax-related P600, pragmatics-related P600

Received: 19 Jun 2018; Accepted: 07 Feb 2019.

Edited by:

Michal Ben-Shachar, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

Reviewed by:

Valentina Bambini, Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori di Pavia (IUSS), Italy
Aya Meltzer-Asscher, Tel Aviv University, Israel  

Copyright: © 2019 Liu, König and Mueller. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Mingya Liu, University of Osnabrück, Osnabrück, Germany,