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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01152

Eliciting ERP components for morphosyntactic agreement mismatches in grammatical sentences

  • 1Université de Montréal, Canada
  • 2Centre for Research on Brain Language and Music, Canada
  • 3McGill University, Canada

The present event-related brain potential (ERP) study investigates mechanisms underlying the processing of morphosyntactic information during real-time auditory sentence comprehension in French. Using an auditory-visual sentence-picture matching paradigm, we investigated two types of anomalies using entirely grammatical auditory stimuli: (i) semantic mismatches between visually presented actions and spoken verbs, and (ii) number mismatches between visually presented agents and corresponding morphosyntactic number markers in the spoken sentences (determiners, pronouns in liaison contexts, and verb-final ‘inflection’). French offers multiple cues for subject-verb number agreement. We varied the type and amount of number cues available in each sentence using two manipulations. First, we manipulated the verb type, by using verbs whose number cue was audible through subject (clitic) pronoun liaison (liaison verbs) as well as verbs whose number cue was audible on the verb ending (consonant-final verbs). Second, we manipulated the pre-verbal context: each sentence was preceded either by a neutral context providing no number cue, or by a subject noun phrase containing a subject number cue on the determiner.
Twenty-two French-speaking adults participated in the experiment. While sentence judgment accuracy was high, participants’ ERP responses were modulated by the type of mismatch encountered. Lexico-semantic mismatches on the verb elicited the expected N400 and additional negativities. Determiner number mismatches elicited early anterior negativities, N400s and P600s. Verb number mismatches elicited biphasic N400-P600 patterns. However, pronoun+verb liaison mismatches elicited this pattern only in the plural, while consonant-final changes elicited this pattern in the singular and the plural. Furthermore, an additional sustained frontal negativity was observed in two of the four verb mismatch conditions: plural liaison and singular consonant-final forms.
This study highlights the different contributions of number cues in oral language processing. They are the first to investigate whether auditory-visual mismatches can elicit errors reminiscent of outright grammatical errors. Our results emphasize that neurocognitive mechanisms underlying number agreement in French are modulated by the type of cue that is used to identify auditory-visual mismatches.

Keywords: Subject-verb agreement (SVA), Agreement violation, ERPs (Event-Related brain Potentials), Auditory modality, French sentences, Online grammatical judgement, Verb processing

Received: 22 Dec 2018; Accepted: 01 May 2019.

Edited by:

Sendy Caffarra, Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Spain

Reviewed by:

Patrick Sturt, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Ryan C. Taylor, University of British Columbia, Canada  

Copyright: © 2019 Courteau, Martignetti, Royle and Steinhauer. 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. Karsten Steinhauer, McGill University, Montreal, H3A 0G4, Quebec, Canada, Karsten.Steinhauer@mcgill.ca