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Priming Prepositional Phrase Attachment: Evidence from Eye-Tracking and Event-Related Potentials

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Three syntactic-priming experiments investigated the effect of structurally similar or dissimilar prime sentences on the processing of target sentences, using eye tracking (Experiment 1) and event-related potentials (ERPs) (Experiments 2 and 3) All three experiments tested readers' response to sentences containing a temporary syntactic ambiguity. The ambiguity occurred because a prepositional phrase modifier (PP-modifier) could attach either to a preceding verb or to a preceding noun. Previous experiments have established that (a) noun-modifying expressions are harder to process than verb-modifying expressions (when test sentences are presented in isolation); and (b) for other kinds of sentences, processing a structurally similar prime sentence can facilitate processing a target sentence. The experiments reported here were designed to determine whether a structurally similar prime could facilitate processing of noun-attached modifiers and whether such facilitation reflected syntactic-structure-building or semantic processes. These findings have implications for accounts of structural priming during online comprehension and for accounts of syntactic representation and processing in comprehension.
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Priming prepositional phrase attachment:
Evidence from eye-tracking and event-
related potentials
Megan A. Boudewyn
a
, Megan Zirnstein
b
, Tamara Y. Swaab
a
& Matthew J.
Traxler
a
a
Department of Psychology , University of California , Davis, Davis , CA ,
USA
b
Department of Psychology , Pennsylvania State University , University
Park , PA , USA
Accepted author version posted online: 08 Jul 2013.Published online: 17 Jul
2013.
To cite this article: The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2013): Priming prepositional
phrase attachment: Evidence from eye-tracking and event-related potentials, The Quarterly Journal of
Experimental Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2013.815237
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2013.815237
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Downloaded by [University of California Davis] at 12:37 20 August 2013
Priming prepositional phrase attachment: Evidence from
eye-tracking and event-related potentials
Megan A. Boudewyn
1
, Megan Zirnstein
2
, Tamara Y. Swaab
1
, and Matthew J. Traxler
1
1
Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, USA
2
Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA
Three syntactic-priming experiments investigated the effect of structurally similar or dissimilar prime
sentences on the processing of target sentences, using eye tracking (Experiment 1) and event-related
potentials (ERPs) (Experiments 2 and 3) All three experiments tested readers response to sentences
containing a temporary syntactic ambiguity. The ambiguity occurred because a prepositional phrase
modier (PP-modier) could attach either to a preceding verb or to a preceding noun. Previous exper-
iments have established that (a) noun-modifying expressions are harder to process than verb-modifying
expressions (when test sentences are presented in isolation); and (b) for other kinds of sentences, pro-
cessing a structurally similar prime sentence can facilitate processing a target sentence. The experiments
reported here were designed to determine whether a structurally similar prime could facilitate processing
of noun-attached modiers and whether such facilitation reected syntactic-structure-building or
semantic processes. These ndings have implications for accounts of structural priming during
online comprehension and for accounts of syntactic representation and processing in comprehension.
Keywords: Syntax; Priming; Sentence processing; Event-related potentials; Eye tracking.
Syntactic-structure-building processes play an
important role in sentence comprehension. Such
processes determine how words in sentences
relate to one another, which in turn inuences
the assignment of thematic roles, semantic
interpretation, and situation model building
(Jackendoff, 2002; Pickering & van Gompel,
2006; Traxler, 2012). Theories of performance
in this domain differ from one another in the pri-
ority that is afforded to purely syntactic infor -
mation, as well as the nature and timing of a
variety of lexical and contextual inuences on syn-
tactic-structure building and semantic interpret-
ation (e.g., Altmann & Kamide, 1999; Altmann
& Steedman, 1988; Ferreira, 2003; Frazier,
1987; Frazier & Clifton, 1996; Friederici, 1995,
2002; Hagoort, 2003, 2005; Kuperberg, 2007;
Levy, 2011; MacDonald, Pearlmutter, &
Seidenberg, 1994; Ni, Crain, & Shankweiler,
1996; Pickering, Tooley, & Traxler, 2011;
Tabor, Galantucci, & Richardson, 2004;
Tanenhaus, Spivey-Know lton, Eberhar d, &
Sedivy, 1995). Parsing theories can be differen-
tiated based on whether they allow for the simul-
taneous activation a nd r ankin g of alternative
structural possibilities, or whether a single syntac-
tic analysis is pursued at any one time. These
accounts can also be divided into those that r estrict
therangeofpossibleinuences on init ial s truc-
ture-building processes and those that suggest
that all relevant sources of information inuence
syntactic choices as soon as they become available.
Correspondence should be addressed to Matthew J. Traxler, Department of Psychology, UC Davis, 1 Shields Avenue, Davis, CA
95616, USA. E-mail: mjtraxler@ucdavis.edu
# 2013 The Experimental Psychology Society 1
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Studies of syntactic-ambiguity resolution have
played an important role in distinguishing
between these alternative descriptions of the
human sentence parser (e.g., Bever, 1970; Brown,
van Berkum, & Hagoort, 2000; Friederici, 2002;
Hagoort, 2005; Rayner, Carlson, & Frazier,
1983; Tanenhaus et al., 1995; Traxler & Tooley,
2007; van Berkum, Brown, & Hagoort, 1999; see
Pickering & van Gompel, 2006; Traxler, 2012 ,
for overviews). Studies in this tradition indicate
that a variety of contextual information, including
visual and referential context, can have substantial
effects on rapidly unfolding syntactic processes.
This article focuses on a specic kind of contextual
manipulation: the inuence of a preceding prime
sentence on a syntactically similar target sentence.
Syntactic-priming experiments have provided a
useful test bed to investigate the nature of syntactic
representations and the way comprehenders access
and use those representations during online sen-
tence interpretation (Arai, van Gompel, &
Scheepers, 2007; Carminati, van Gompel,
Scheepers, & Arai, 2008; Ledoux, Traxler, &
Swaab, 2007; Thothathiri & Snedeker, 2008a;
Tooley, Traxler, & Swaab, 2009; Tooley, Swaab,
Boudewyn, Zirnstein, & Traxler, in press). These
priming studies have established that repeating a
syntactic structure across a prime and a target sen-
tence facilitates online processing of the target sen-
tence. Syntac tic priming may also inuence the
nal choice of interpreta tion in globally ambiguous
sentences (Branigan, Pickering, & McLean, 2005).
Previously observed facilitatory effects reect
aspects of syntactic-structure-building operations
and occur independently of strategic cues or seman-
tic associations between prime and target sentences
(Tooley et al., 2009; Tooley et al., in press; Traxler,
2008; Traxler & Tooley, 2008).
To date, syntactic priming in comprehension has
been observed during online processing in only three
sentence types: reduced relatives (e.g., 1); preposi-
tional-object (PO) and double-object (DO) datives
(e.g., 2a and 2b), and modiergoal ambiguities
(e.g., 3).
1
1. The defendant examined by the lawyer proved to be
unreliable. (Reduced relative)
2a. The pirate gave the necklace to the princess. (PO
dative)
2b. The pirate gave the princess the necklace. (DO dative)
3. The girl dropped the blanket on the oor on the bed
this morning. (Modiergoal)
In experiments on sentences containing reduced-
relative clauses, exposure to a prime sentence with
the same overall syntactic structure and the same
critical verb (e.g., examined) leads to facilitated pro-
cessing of the syntactically disambiguating by-
phrase (e.g., by the lawyer) (Ledoux et al., 2007;
Tooley et al., 2009; Tooley et al., in press;
Traxler, 2008; Traxler & Tooley, 2008). This
facilitated processing can occur in the absence of
repetition of the verb, and some experiments also
show facilitated processing of both the relative
clause verb and the following prepositional
phrase. Semantic repetition, whether established
by repeating the relative clause verb (but not the
overall syntactic structure) or the subject noun,
does not lead to facilitated processing of the prepo-
sitional phrase following the by-phrase. However,
it should be noted that syntactic-priming effects
in comprehension have been most frequently
found when prime and target sentences share a
verb, which is sometimes termed the lexical
boost (see Tooley & Traxler, 2010, 2012). A com-
plete discussion of the theoretical implications of
the lexical boost is beyond the scope of this paper
(see Tooley & Traxler, 2010, 2012, for a review),
but two points are particularly relevant. First, the
studies reported in the current paper used the
same verb in both prime and target sentences, in
order to maximize the likelihood of nding evi-
dence of syntactic priming in the sentence types
tested here. Second, while the lexical boost could
be interpreted as evidence that syntactic priming
is either fully or partially driven by lexically linked
syntactic-structure information, several studies
have found syntactic-priming effects even when
verbs were not shared between prime and target
sentences (e.g., Thothathiri & Snedecker, 2008a,
2008b; Traxler, 2008).
1
There is additional evidence for fast priming of the complement interpretation in objectcomplement ambiguities (Trueswell &
Kim, 1998).
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In event-related potential (ERP) experiments,
electrophysiological evidence of facilitated syntactic
processing for sentences containing reduced-rela-
tive clauses has been found when sentences such
as (1) are precede d by syntactically identical sen-
tences (Ledoux et al., 2007; Tooley et al., in
press; Tooley et al., 2009). Overall, these ndings
suggest that exposure to a reduced-relative prime
sentence facilitates the mental processes by which
comprehenders construct or recover the abstract
syntactic forms needed to parse a structurally
related target sentence.
In PO and DO datives, priming effects in com-
prehension have been observed in the visual world
paradigm (Arai et al., 2007; Carminati et al.,
2008; Thothathiri & Snedeker, 2008a, 2008b). In
these experiments, participants view an image that
depicts different characters and objects (such as a
pirate, a princess, and a necklace) . If participants
hear a PO dative prime sentence, their eye move-
ments tend to be drawn to an inanimate object
(e.g., necklace) as they are listening to sentences
like (2a) and (2b), repeated here:
2a. The pirate gave the necklace to the princess. (PO dative)
2b. The pirate gave the princess the necklace. (DO dative)
If participants instead hear a DO dative prime,
they are more likely to xate on an animate entity
(e.g., princess). These effects begin to appear as par-
ticipants are listening to the critical verb (e.g.,
gave), and have been found both when verbs were
repeated across prime and targets (Arai et al.,
2007, Experiment 1; Carminati et al., 2008;
Thothathiri & Snedeker 2008a, Experiments 1a,
2a) and, in some studies, when different verbs
were used (Thothathiri & Snedeker, 2008a,
Experiments 1b, 2b; Thothathiri & Snedeker,
2008b; but see Arai et al., 2007, Experiment 2).
These ndings indicate that syntactic processes
specify slots that are dened in terms of abstract
semantic properties (e.g., animate vs. inanimate)
in addition to abstract phrasal categories (e.g.,
noun phrase). They indicate further that partici-
pants more strongly anticipate particular constitu-
ent orderings as a result of exposure to a prime
sentence (see also Altmann & Kamide, 1999;
Kamide, Scheepers, & Altmann, 2003).
Sentences such as (3) are temporarily ambiguous
between a goal interpretation (The girl dropped the
blanket on the oor, where oor is the location
where the blanket ends up) and a modier
interpretation (as in The girl dropped the blanket
on the oor on the bed, where bed is the actual nal
location and on the oor provides information that
the comprehender can use to distinguish between
different blankets in a set). These sentences gener-
ally produce processing difculty when comprehen-
ders reach the second of the two prepositional
phrases (on the bed). This difculty presumably
occurs because the preceding prepositional phrase
had been interpreted as a goal location, but must
now be reinterpreted as a nongoal modifying
expression. This processing difculty can be
reduced if concurrent visual information supports
the modi er reading of the rst prepositional
phrase (on the oor) over the goal interpretation
(Tanenhaus et al., 1995). In an eye-tracking
study, it was shown that processing difculty
associated with modiergoal sentences is also
reduced if the sentence is preceded by another sen-
tence with the same syntactic structure (Traxler,
2008). For this sentence type, the same degree of
facilitation occurred whether or not the prime and
target sentences shared a verb.
The chief goal of the current study was to inves-
tigate the nature of syntactic-priming effects, using
both behavioural and neurophysiological methods,
by comparing directly across different sentence
types to examine whether common mechanisms
underlie facilitative effects of repeating a structure.
While a growing body of evidence indicates that
temporarily ambiguous sentences can be processed
faster than normal when a structurally similar sen-
tence has been recently encountered, we still do not
know a great deal about the range of sentences over
which facilitatory effects occur. Thus, we need data
from a wider range of sentence types before we can
draw general conclusions about the nature of the
underlying processes that give rise to observed
facilitation effects. In the current study, we chose
to investigate two types of sentences containing
temporarily ambiguous prepositional phrase modi-
ers: so-called highlow attachment ambiguities
(see 4 and 5 below), and modiergoal ambiguities
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(as in 3 above). Both of these structures involve a
temporarily ambiguous prepositional phrase. We
chose these structures because there is limited
empirical evidence available regarding the online
processing of these sentence types and because
there is theoretical debate as to the processes
involved in recognizing and resolving the syntacti-
cally ambiguous portions of such sentences.
Specically, the minimal attachment (structural
reanalysis) and referential hypotheses attribute the
difculty associated with these senten ces to funda-
mentally different processes.
In our study, the rst two experiments tested
readers response to verbnoun attachment ambi-
guities (sometimes called highlow attachment
ambiguities; Rayner et al., 1983), like Sentence 4:
2
4. The girl hit the boy with the paddle earlier today.
Sentences like (4) are syntactically and semantically
ambiguous because, while semantic properties of
paddle make it a likely instrument of the action of
hitting, it could serve to modify the preceding
noun boyas in Which boy did the girl hit (with
her st)? The one with the paddle. Typically, sen-
tences like (4), where the modifying expression
with the paddle can be felicitously associated with
the preceding verb, are easier to process than sen-
tences where the modifying expression must
attach to the direct-object noun, as in (5):
5. The girl hit the boy with the bruise earlier today.
The minimal attachment and construal accounts
attribute the difculty of (5) to syntactic-struc-
ture-building preferences (Frazier, 1979, 1987;
Frazier & Clifton, 1996). Briey, the minimal
attachment heuristic causes the human sentence
parser to prefer simpler structures over more
complex ones. Given specic representational
assumptions, verb attachment leads to a less
complex syntactic structure than noun attachment.
Hence, (4) will take less time to process than (5),
because the prepotent syntactic choice leads to a
more plausible or sensible interpretation in (4)
than in (5). In sentences like (5), the infelicity of
bruise as an instrument of hit triggers a syntactic
reanalysis. During this process of syntactic reanaly-
sis, comprehenders discover an alternative struc-
tural conguration (noun attachment) that
produces a more felicitous semantic outcome.
Average processing time for sentences like (5) is
greater than that for (4) due to the time taken to
complete these additional syntactic processes.
In contrast, the referential hypothesis offers a
different explanation for increased processing load
in Sentence 5 (Altmann, Garnham, & Henstra,
1994; Altmann & Steedman, 1988; Ni et al.,
1996). According to this account, comprehenders
favour interpretations that lead to referential
success and that minimize unattested presupposi-
tions. Consider the noun phrase the boy in
Sentence 5. If a sentence like (5) is presented in iso-
lation, the denite article in the noun phrase the boy
would normally indicate that only one boy is rel-
evant to the situation described by the sentence.
Thus, comprehenders initially build a discourse
representation that contains only one boy. Given
that state of affairs, additional information in the
sentence that further species properties of the boy
will be unexpected, redundant, and therefore infeli-
citous (Grice, 1989). Having successfu lly estab-
lished a connection between the de nite noun
phrase the boy and a unique entity in a discourse
representation, comprehenders are surprised when
the subsequent prepositional phrase differentiates
that unique entity from a set of related, but unmen-
tioned, entities. The referential account predicts
that the modifying expression will be easier to
process in a context where the earlier noun phrase
the boy does not successfully identify a unique refer-
ent. This would be the case if a preceding sentence
introduced some larger set of boys. In fact, proces-
sing times for modiers are reduced when sen-
tences like (5) follow contexts like (6):
6. There were three boys on the playground this morning.
One had recently fallen off his bike.
5. The girl hit the boy with the bruise earlier today.
Similar logic can be applied to the processing of
other types of modiers, such as modiergoal
ambiguities. Sentences containing this type of
2
We use verbnoun terminology to describe the ambiguity as a more theory-neutral option.
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prepositional phrase modier were tested in
Experiment 3. In this case, as in the verbnoun
attachment ambiguities discussed above (and
tested in Experiments 1 and 2), the processing dif-
culty upon encountering the second prepositional
phrase could reasonably be attributed either to a
parsing preference for a simpler syntactic structure
(minimal attachment hypothesis) or to the prag-
matic oddity of encountering additional specifying
information about a noun when none is needed
(because there is a single referent in play; referential
hypothesis).
Overview of the experiments
In the current study, we used a priming paradigm to
test novel predictions following from the minimal
attachment (structural reanalysis) and referential
hypotheses. In the rst two experiments (eye track-
ing and ERPs), the priming paradigm involved
presenting noun-attached target sentences, such
as in 5 above. The third experiment (ERPs)
tested modiergoal ambiguities (such as in 3
above), which are related, but distinct, sentence
types. In previous priming experiments on other
sentence types, the most robust priming effects
have been found when the prime and target sen-
tences had the same critical verb (Arai et al.,
2007; Pickering & Traxler, 2004; Traxler &
Pickering, 2005; Traxler & Tooley, 2008; Weber
& Indefrey, 2009; primin g effects in production
also tend to be larger when verbs are repeated
across prime and target stimuli); therefore, here
we also repeated the same critical verb across the
prime and target sentences. Experiment 1, which
used eye tracking to measure participants
responses, was conducted to see whether presenting
the prime sentence had any effect on processing of
the target. Target sentences were presented
immediately following prime sentences that also
contained a noun-attached prepositional phrase or
after a prime sentence that contained a verb-
attached prepositional phrase. If attachment
decisions can be primed, either by facilitating
more complex syntactic-structure-building oper-
ations or by speeding the reconguration of dis-
course representations (or via some other means),
then noun-attached target sentences should be pro-
cessed faster when they follow noun-attached
prime sentences than when they follow verb-
attached prime sentences.
Speeded processing of noun-attached target
sentences does not, by itself, indicate what causes
the observed facilitatory effects. To obtain further
evidence as to the nature of these effects, we con-
ducted two ERP experiments. ERPs have the
potential to differentiate semantic processing dif-
culties from difculties that arise when syntact ic
revision is required. Specically, the N400 is sensi-
tive to semantic processing difculties, and a
reduced N400 amplitude is found to words that
are semantically plausible, related, or predictable
given the preceding language context (e.g.,
Federmeier & Kutas, 1999; Kutas & Hillyard,
1984; van Berkum, Hagoort, & Brown, 1999;
van Petten, 1993; for a review, see Swaab,
Ledoux, Camblin, & Boudewyn, 2011). In
addition, a reduced N400 is also found to anaphors
that are easily related to their antecedents
(Camblin, Ledoux, Boudewyn, Gordon, &
Swaab, 2007; Ledoux et al., 2007 ; Swaab,
Camblin, & Gordon, 2004).
In contrast, the P600 was initially found to be
modulated by syntactic manipulations, ranging
from syntactic violations (e.g., Osterhout &
Mobley, 1995) to syntactic complexity (e.g.,
Kaan, Harris, Gibson, & Holcomb, 2000).
Following from this work, the P600 was inter-
preted as reecting attempts to revise the syntactic
structure following syntactic violations or ambigu-
ity (Hagoort, Brown, & Groothusen, 1993; Kaan
& Swaab, 2003; Osterhout & Holcomb, 1992).
More recently, P600 effects have been found to
manipulations that may cause conict at the inter-
face of syntax and semantics, such as reversible the-
matic roles (e.g., The eggs would eat . . . ; Kim &
Osterhout, 2005; Kolk & Chwilla, 2007; Kolk,
Chwilla, van Herten, & Oor, 2003; Kuperberg,
Sitnikova, Caplan, & Holcomb, 2003; Kuperberg,
Caplan, Sitnikova, Eddy, & Holcomb, 2006;
Nakano, Saron, & Swaab, 2010). Thus, the P600
is a sensitive indicator of syntactic violations and dif-
culty, but also is found when there is a conict between
semantics and syntax (e.g., Kuperberg, 2007). In
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general, a reduced P600 waveform for one con-
dition compared to another indicates a structural
element to the facilitation for that condition,
whereas a reduced N400 waveform does not.
Notably, previous studies that have focused on sen-
tences containing reduced-relative clauses have
found that priming syntactic structure results in
modulations of the P600 effect (Ledoux et al.,
2007; Tooley et al., 2009).
The different functional proles of the N400
and P600 effects were used to examine the nature
of potential syntactic-priming effects for sentences
containing (temporarily) ambiguous prepositional
phrase modiers. The two ERP experiments
(Experiments 2 and 3) were syntactic-priming
experiments analogous to the eye-tracking exper-
iment (Experiment 1). Experiment 2 tested the
same kind of sentence as Experiment 1, while
Experiment 3 tested a related type also involving
a choice between verb and noun modication.
If noun-attached primes facilitate the syntactic-
structure-building processes that are required to
interpret noun-attached targets, during initial
analysis or reanalysis, then those facilitated syntactic
operations should cause a decrease in the amplitude
of the P600 when target sentences are compared to
primes. This is the pattern that has been observed in
previous ERP priming studies on a different sen-
tence type (Ledoux et al., 2007; Tooley et al.,
2009, in press). Although, as noted above, the
P600 effect is unlikely to be a marker of purely
syntactic processing, its presence does implicate a
syntactic component to the processing difculty in
question. If, by contrast, noun-attached primes
facilitate aspects of semantic, rather than syntactic,
processes, then we should observe a reduced N400
when target sentences are compared to primes.
EXPERIMENT 1: EYE TRACKING
Experiment 1 was designed to determine whether
the presentation of noun-attached and verb-
attached prime sentences inuences the processing
of noun-attached target sentences. Facilitatory
effects have been obtained under similar conditions
for reduced-relative clauses, PO and DO datives,
and modiergoal ambiguities. However, no
online priming experiments have yet been con-
ducted on sentences containing verbnoun modi-
er attachment ambiguities. Therefore, as noted
above, we repeated the verb across prime and
targets sentences, as the most robust syntactic-
priming effects have been found with repeate d
verbs (Arai et al., 2007; Pickering & Traxler,
2004; Traxler & Pickering, 2005; Traxler &
Tooley, 2008; Weber & Indefrey, 2009). Further,
because the priming effects in both comprehension
and production tend to be larger for more difcult
sentence types, all of our target sentences contained
noun-attached prepositional phrases. Thus, an
individual trial in the experiment would have
either a verb-attached (e.g., 4) or a noun-attached
(e.g., 5) prime sentence, but the targets were
always noun attached (e.g., 7).
4. The girl hit the boy with the paddle earlier today. (Verb-
attached prime)
5. The girl hit the boy with the bruise earlier today. (Noun-
attached prime)
7. The policeman hit the man with the mustache earlier
today. (Noun-attached target)
Method
Participants
A total of 44 UC Davis undergraduates partici-
pated in partial fullment of a course requirement.
All of the participants had normal hearing and
vision and were native speakers of English. One
participant was excluded from the analyses
because of excessive missing data.
Stimuli
The stimuli were adapted from Altmann and
Steedmans (1988) stimulus set. Each participant
read 26 target sentences. Half of the target sen-
tences followed noun-attached primes, and half fol-
lowed verb-attached primes. Each target sentence
was presented imm ediately after a prime sentence.
The noun-attached prime and target sentences
were rotated across experimental lists so that each
prime (from one list) served as a target sentence
(on another list), and vice versa. This procedure
controls for a number of potential nuisance
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variables, including length and frequency of the
words in the sentence, semantic plausibility, and
intralexical associations within the sentences. The
participants also read 132 ller sentences of
various grammatical types (including simple active
voice sentences, simple passive voice sentences,
sentences with subject relative clauses, and other
innocuous forms). None of the verbs used in the
experimental items appeared in the ller items. At
least one ller sentence appeared between each
primetarget pair.
Catch trials. While strategic cues have not pre-
viously been shown to inuence the magnitude of
syntactic-priming effects (see Tooley et al., 2009;
Traxler & Tooley, 2008; for extensive discussion),
we included 15 catch trials to minimize the
potential effects of processing strategies. In these
catch trials, noun- or verb-attached sentences
were followed by a ller sentence that did not
contain a prepositional phrase modier and was
not a garden-path sentence. By including
catch trials, participants could not predict what
type of sentence would follow a noun-attached or
verb-attached prime sentence.
Eye movement monitoring procedure. A Fourward
Technologies dual-Purkinje image eye-tracker
monitored participants eye movements while they
read the sentences. The tracker has angular resol-
ution of 10
of arc. The tracker monitored only
the right eyes gaze location. A PC displayed sen-
tence materials on a visual display unit (VDU) 70
cm from partici pants eyes. The location of partici -
pants gaze location was sampled every millisecond,
and the PC software recorded the trackers output
to establish the sequence of eye xations and their
start and nish times. Before the experiment, the
participant was seated at the eye tracker and was
positioned with a chin cup and head rests to mini-
mize head movements during the experiment.
Before the experiment began, the tracker was
aligned and calibrated. Participants were instructed
to read each sentence at a normal, comfortable pace
and be prepared to answer comprehension ques-
tions that would follow some, but not all, of the
sentences. Participants were instructed to press a
button as soon as they nished reading each sen-
tence. After 20 of the ller sentences, the partici-
pant responded to a truefalse comprehension
question. Participants did not receive feedback on
their responses. Between each trial, a pattern of
squares appeared on the computer screen along
with a cursor that indicated the participants
current gaze location. If the tracker was out of
alignment, it was recalibrated before proceeding
with the next trial.
Analyses. We report four standard eye movement
dependent measures. (a) First-pass time is the sum
of all xation durations beginning with the rst x-
ation in a region until the readers gaze leaves the
region, left or right; (b) rst-pass regressions reect
eye movements that cross a regions left-hand
boundary immediately following a rst-pass x-
ation; (c) regression-path time includes all of the x-
ations from the rst xation in a scoring region
until the reader xates somewhere to the right of
the scoring region (Traxler, Bybee, & Pickering,
1997); this measure includes time spent rexating
previous regions and the target region itself; (d)
total time is the sum of all xation durations in a
region, regardless of order.
Prior to determining xation durations, an auto-
matic procedure incorporated xations of less than
80 ms into the largest xation within one character.
In the next stage, the procedure eliminated all indi-
vidual xations greater than 1000 ms and less than
80 ms. Subsequently, rst-pass times and total
times of less than 120 ms were excluded from the
analyses. Further, rst-pass or total times exceeding
2000 ms for a given scoring region were excluded.
Very short xations often reect slight oculomotor
error and are usually followed by very short saccades
to a nearby location, followed by a much longer x-
ation. Very long xations normally reect track loss
or inattention.
We computed these four dependent measures
for four scoring regions. The verb region included
the main verb (e.g., hit in Sentence 7). The noun
phrase (NP) region included the determiner and
noun immediately following the main verb (the
man). The prepositional phrase (PP) region included
the preposition with and the following determiner
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and noun (with the moustache). Considerable pre-
processing or outright word identication fre-
quently happens when readers xate short, highly
frequent function words, like with and the. Thus,
xation durations on these words were probably
inuenced by response to the following noun.
The post-PP region included the two words that
immediately followed the PP region (earlier today).
7. The policeman/ hit/ the man/ with the mustache/ earlier
today./
Separate by-participant and by-items analyses were
conducted for each dependent measure for each
scoring region. The data were analysed using
hierarchical linear modelling (HLM; Blozis &
Traxler, 2007; Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002;
Traxler, Williams, Blozis, & Morris, 2005).
HLM is appropriate for analysing data sets where
random observations are nested within random
clusters, such as reaction times within items
within participants. Unlike repeated measures
analysis of variance (ANOVA), HLM does not
require that individuals have the same number of
observations (Snijders & Bosker, 1993), and it
does not require aggregation across trials. Reading
times were modelled as a function of sentence
characteristics (whether the sentence appeared in
the list as a prime sentence or a target). Each par-
ticipant contributed up to 39 responses (13
responses to noun-attached primes and 26
responses to noun-attached targets, 13 of which
followed noun-attached primes and 13 of which
followed verb-attached primes). At the rst level
of the model, outcomes (dependent measures)
were considered a function of condition (noun-
attached prime vs. target following verb-attached
prime vs. target following noun-attached prime).
At the second level of the model, Level 1 parameter
slopes and error terms were allowed to vary ran-
domly between individuals.
The by-participants multilevel models were con-
gured as follows (see Blozis & Traxler, 2007;
Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002; Traxler et al., 2005):
Level 1: RT for person i, for item j = Boi + B1i (target fol-
lowing verb attached prime)j + B2i (target follow-
ing noun attached prime)j + eij
Level 2: Boi = goo + uo
B1i = g10 + u1
B2i = g20 + u2
For the by-items models, transpose person and
item. Boi reects reading time (RT) for the
scoring region in the prime sentence (baseline
RT); B1i reects the change from baseline
reading time associated with the target senten ces
that followed verb-attached primes; B2i reects
the change from baseline reading time associated
with the target sentences that followed noun-
attached primes; eij reects random measurement
error; goo is the difference between group baseline
reading time and baseline reading time for person i;
g10 reects the difference between the average
effect of having a verb-attached prime and that
effect in person i on target reading time; g20
reects the difference between the average effect
of having a noun-attached prime and that effect
in person i on target reading time; uo, u1, and u2
reect random error in the Level 2 parameters.
Results and discussion
Table 1 presents mean values of the four dependent
measures and standard errors (in parentheses) for
each condition (noun-attached prime, noun-
attached target following a noun-attached prime,
and noun-attached target following a verb-attached
prime; the verb-attached primes themselves were
not analysed) in each scoring region. For the verb
region, repetition of the verb was expected to result
in facilitation for both verb-attached targets and
noun-attached targets, compared to prime sentences.
This repetition effect was also expected to spill over
into the NP region. If present, syntactic-priming
effects were expected to manifest in the PP and/or
post-PP regions, as facilitation for noun-attached
targets following primes of the same structure (i.e.,
as compared to following verb-attached primes).
Verb region
There were no signicant effects in the verb region
in rst-pass time, regression path time, or total
time. There were fewer regressions from the verb
region in the target sentences than in the primes
for both the verb-attachment [t
1
(42) = 1.8,
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p = .08; t
2
(51) = 2.00, p = .05] and the noun-
attachment conditions [t
1
(42) = 2.57, p = .01;
t
2
(51) = 2.70, p = .01]. These effects may reect
facilitated lexical access to the repeated verb.
NP region
There were fewer regressio ns from the NP region
in the target sentences than in the primes for both
the verb-attachment [t
1
(42) = 2.83, p , .01;
t
2
(51) = 2.85, p = .02] and the nou n-attac hment
conditions [t
1
(42) = 2.34, p , .05; t
2
(51) = 1.98,
p = .05]. Targets following noun-attached
primes had low er total time tha n baseline
[t
1
(42) = 2.57, p , .05; t
2
(51) = 2.70, p = .01],
but targets following verb-attached primes did
not (t
1
, t
2
, 1, ns).
PP region
Total time for targets following noun-attached
primes was lower than baseline [t
1
(42) = 1.84,
p = .07; t
2
(51) = 2.14, p , .05], but total time for
targets following verb-attached primes was not
(t
1
, t
2
, 1; ns).
Post-PP region
In the post-PP region, there were more regressi ons
in targets that followed verb-attached primes than
in the baseline condition [t
1
(42) = 2.89, p , .01;
t
2
(51) = 3.14, p , .01].
There were no signicant effects in rst-pass time
or regression-path time in any of the scoring
regions. Target sentences had fewer regressions
than prime sentences in the verb and NP regions
for both conditionsnoun-attached targets follow-
ing verb-attached primes and noun-attached
targets following noun-attached primes. These
effects may reect facilitated lexical access based
on repetition of the verb.
In the post-PP region, noun-attached targets fol-
lowing verb-attached primes had more regressions
than noun-attached prime sentences. This result
most probably reects a kind of enhanced garden-
path effect. Having just processed a verb-attached
prime, participants were less prepared to process
the noun-attached target. That is , the assumption
that a PP-modier will be interpretable as an instru-
ment of the preceding verb may be strengthened in
the period immediately following the construction
of such an interpretation. Alternatively, participants
may have undertaken a shallower semantic analysis
of the verb-attachment interpretation in targets fol-
lowing verb-attached primes, with greater regressions
from the post-PP region in the targets reecting a
Table 1. Mean values of the four dependent measures by scoring region and condition, Experiment 1
Dependent measure Condition
Scoring region
Verb NP PP Post-PP
First pass (ms) Noun-attached prime 340 (6.98) 376 (10.6) 544 (17.3) 391 (14.9)
Target after verb-attached prime 343 (7.04) 375 (9.46) 549 (11.0) 390 (9.02)
Target after noun-attached prime 334 (7.56) 370 (7.77) 540 (11.9) 398 (9.51)
First-pass regressions (%) Noun-attached prime 10.8 (1.29) 10.1 (1.30) 8.8 (1.16) 19.6 (1.75)
Target after verb-attached prime 8.7* (1.16) 7.2* (1.02) 7.3 (1.12) 24.4 (1.68)
Target after noun-attached prime 8.0* (1.09) 7.6* (1.08) 7.5 (1.15) 20.1 (1.52)
Regression path time (ms) Noun-attached prime 379 (9.09) 398 (12.0) 590 (20.6) 448 (19.8)
Target after verb-attached prime 372 (7.63) 392 (9.89) 583 (13.4) 441 (12.0)
Target after noun-attached prime 366 (10.4) 386 (8.56) 570 (13.5) 454 (13.1)
Total time (ms) Noun-attached prime 405 (11.0) 471 (23.7) 720 (36.4) 443 (23.4)
Target after verb-attached prime 397 (14.1) 459 (17.9) 717 (25.2) 426 (19.8)
Target after noun-attached prime 384 (12.0) 428 (16.6) 678 (23.0) 434 (19.8)
Note: Standard errors (based on the by-participants analyses) appear in parentheses. NP = noun phrase; PP = prepositional phrase.
*p , .05.
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kind of delayed realization that something is seman-
tically wrong with the verb-attachment interpret-
ation. Overall, these regressions results suggest that
processing a verb-attached modier in the prime sen-
tence reinforced the instrument interpretation of the
modifying expression. This, in turn, may have
delayed recovery of the correct noun-modication
interpretation of the target sentence.
Total time for targets that followed noun-
attached primes was lower in the NP and PP
regions than for comparable regions of the noun-
attached primes. Thus, processing a noun-attached
prime sentence facilitated attachment of the modi-
fying PP to the noun during processing of the
target sentences. No such benet accrued for
noun-attached targets following verb-attached
primes, suggesting that the facilitatory effects
were not simply the result of repetition priming
from the verb (because the verbs were repeated in
targets following verb-attached primes and targets
following noun-attached primes). These results
indicate that processing a noun-attached modier
in the prime sentence facilitated processing of the
noun-attached modier in the target sentence.
EXPERIMENT 2: ERPS
Experiment 1 showed that the processing of a
noun-attached target sentence was facilitated by
immediate prior exposure to a similar noun-
attached prime sentence. This result, does not, by
itself, indicate what aspect of processing was facili-
tated. Therefore, in the present experiment, we
used ERPs in a design similar to Ledoux and col-
leagues (2007) ERP experiment in order to
further examine how exposure to prime sentences
inuences target processing. All of the prime and
target sentences shared a critical verb; all of the
prime sentences were temporarily ambiguous
(between verb attachment and noun attachment),
and half of the target sentences had the same
overall structure as the prime, while the rest instan-
tiated an alternative interpretation. If the prime
sentence inuences processing of the target by facil-
itating aspects of semantic interpretation, we
should observe reductions in the mean amplitude
of the N400 at and following the point at which
the target sentences are disambiguated. If,
instead, the prime sentence facilitates aspects of
syntactic processing, such as the operation that
attaches the modier to the noun rather than the
verb, we predict that this would result in a
reduction of the mean amplitude of the P600,
which is the pattern we have observed in our pre-
vious ERP studies with other syntactic structures.
Method
Participants
Twenty-three undergraduates from the University
of California, Davis gave informed consent and
took part in this study. All were compensated
with course credit and were right-handed native
speakers of English with no reported psychologi-
cal/neurological disorders and normal or cor-
rected-to-normal vision and hearing. The average
age was 19.5 years (range: 1823).
Stimuli
Each participant read 40 noun-attached target sen-
tences that followed noun-attached prime sen-
tences (80 experimental sentences). An additional
40 primetarget catch-trial pairs were included
so that it was not possible to predict the type of
target sentence based on the type of prime sentence;
in these pairs, prime sentences were noun attached,
and target sentences were verb attached. All prime
target pairs contained the same verb (repeated from
5 and 7 in the eye-tracking study):
Prime: The girl hit the boy with the bruise earlier today.
Target: The policeman hit the man with the mustache
earlier today.
Finally, 130 ller sentences of variable syntactic
structure were included. Primes and targets were
counterbalanced across four lists, so that each
prime sentence in a particular list was used as a
target sentence in a different list. Each participant
was presented with one of the four lists. This coun-
terbalancing allowed for the comparison across
prime and target items of the same sentences,
controlling for any potential differences in lexical
frequency or length between items.
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Procedure
Participants were seated in a comfortable chair in an
electrically shielded, sound-attenuating booth, and
stimuli were presented using Presentation software
(neurobs.com). Participants were instructed to read
the sentences for comprehension and to refrain
from blinking or making other eye movements or
other movements during presentation of the sen-
tences. This was done in order to minimize
subject-generated artefacts in the electroencephalo-
graphy (EEG) signal. Trials began with a white x-
ation cross that appeared for 1000 ms against a black
background on a computer screen that was about
100 cm in front of the participants. The xation
cross was replaced by the rst word of the sentence;
sentences were presented word by word using rapid
serial visual presentation (RSVP), at a rate of 300 ms
per word with a 200-ms interstimulus interval.
Words were presented in white, 16-point, Tahoma
font, between white bars, which served as a xation
aid. The last word of each sentence was presented
with a period, and the rst word of each sentence
began with a capital letter. Prime and target sen-
tences were separated by a 3000-ms interval. True/
false comprehension questions followed all target
sentences of both experimental and catch trials
(but never followed a prime sentence).
Comprehension questions did not focus on the criti-
cal manipulation (e.g., Target: The policeman hit
the man with the mustache earlier today. T or F:
The ofcer struck the man). Participants responded
with a button press on a keyboard. Comprehension
questions appeared on the screen 1500-ms following
the offset of the previous trial, and the next trial
began 1500 ms after participants made a response.
In addition, comprehension questions followed
half of the ller trials. Accuracy was 90.7% on
average (range: 85.295.3%) and did not differ
between experimental and ller trials (p = .65).
EEG recording and data reduction. The electro-
encephalogram was recorded from 29 electrodes
mounted in a custom electrode cap (ElectroCap
International), referenced to the right mastoid
(except for the electrodes that were used to
measure potential blinks and eye movements:
One electrode placed beneath the left eye was
referenced to FP1, and two placed at the outer
canthi of both eyes were referenced to each
other). The left mastoid was also recorded, and
the algebraic average of the right and left mastoids
was used for ofine re-referencing. The EEG
signal was amplied with band pass cut-offs of
0.01 and 30 Hz and was digitized at a sampling
rate of 250 Hz using a Neuroscan Synamps
system. Impedances were kept below 5 kΩ.
Prior to ofine averaging, all trials were screened
for amplier blocking, muscle artefacts, horizontal
eye movement artefacts, and blinks over epochs of
2000 ms, starting 200 ms before the onset of the
critical regions (see below). Averaged ERPs were
computed for artefact-free trials and were ltered
with a Gaussian low-pass lter (25 Hz half-ampli-
tude cut-off). On average, 16% of trials were
rejected due to the presence of artefacts, and 33
trials per condition, per participant were included
in the analysis (range: 2540). There were no sig-
nicant differences in the number of trials rejected
in each condition (p . .6). Statistical analyses were
calculated using the ltered data.
Analogous to the eye-tracking study, we averaged
ERPs in three regions. The
verb + noun phrase
region included the matrix verb (e.g., hit in
Sentence 7) and the determiner and noun immedi-
ately following the matrix verb (the man). For the
ERPs, this NP was combined with the verb,
because our previous studies have shown an N400
effect of lexical repetition on the verb in the target
sentences (Tooley et al., 2009), and this precludes
calculation of a reliable prestimulus baseline for the
determiner following the matrix verb, since it
would be baselined on the N400 effect to the verb.
The PP region included the preposition with and
the following determiner and noun (with the mus-
tache). The post-PP region consisted of the two
words immediately following the noun in the PP
region (earlier today). Results are reported below
forallthewordsinthesethreeregions(i.e.,.../
hit the man/ with the mustache/ earlier today).
Results and discussion
The ERPs for the three regions are displayed in
Figures 13. As can be seen in Figure 1 (and
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Figure 1. Effect of type for the verb region for Experiment 2. Red lines represent waveforms in response to the prime sentence; in blue (dotted
line) is the response to the target sentence. Nine electrodes representing frontal, central, and posterior sites are shown. Negative is plotted up. The
verb region is shown (2000-ms epoch), covering the main verb, verb + 1 and verb + 2. The N400 time window (for the main verb) appears
shaded in light green (light gray), while the P600 time window is shaded in darker green (dark gray). To view a colour version of this gure,
please see the online issue of the Journal.
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Figure 2. Effect of type for the prepositional phrase region for Experiment 2. Red lines represent waveforms in response to the prime sentence; in
blue (dotted line) is the response to the target sentence. Nine electrodes representing frontal, central, and posterior sites are shown. Negative is
plotted up. The prepositional phrase region is shown (2000-ms epoch), covering the preposition, determiner, and noun. The N400 time
windows corresponding to the preposition, determiner, and noun appear shaded in light green (light gray), while the P600 time windows
are shaded in darker green (dark gray). To view a colour version of this gure, please see the online issue of the Journal.
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Figure 3. Effect of type for the postprepositional phrase region for Experiment 2. Red lines represent waveforms in response to the prime
sentence; in blue (dotted line) is the response to the target sentence. Nine electrodes representing frontal, central, and posterior sites are
shown. Negative is plotted up. The postprepositional phrase region is shown (1600-ms epoch), covering noun + 1 and noun + 2. The
N400 time windows corresponding to noun + 1 and noun + 2 appear shaded in light green (light gray), while the P600 time windows
are shaded in darker green (dark gray). At the bottom left of the gure are topographic maps displaying the distribution of the effects in the
P600 time windows corresponding to noun + 1 and noun + 2. To view a colour version of this gure, please see the online issue of the Journal.
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supported by the statistical analyses reported
below), there was indeed a large N400 effect of
lexical repetition on the verb (reduced N400 to
verbs in the target sentences) and on the word
immediately following the verb (the). No N400
effects were observed two words after the repeated
verb, reecting a return to overlapping waveforms
for both conditions at this point, which could
then serve as a reliable baseline for the following
PP region. Figure 2 shows the ERPs to the
words in the PP region. Here we found a trend
towards an N400 effect of repetition to the prepo-
sition (reduced N400 to with in the target sen-
tence). There was also a signicant difference on
the determiner at midline electrode sites (with the
determiner being more pos itive in primes than
targets). No signicant differences were found for
the noun of the prepositional phrase, and this
therefore served as a reliable baseline for the post-
PP region. Finally, Figure 3 shows the ERPs to
the words in the post-PP region, as well as
topographic maps of the distribution of the syntac-
tic-priming effects: A reduced P600 was found in
the target sentences to each of the two words
immediately following the critical disambiguating
noun, with reduced positivities for targets com-
pared to primes for noun + 1 and noun + 2.
Separate repeated measures ANOVAs
(rANOVAs) were conducted for midline (electro-
des Afz, Fz, Cz, Pz, POz), medial (electrodes
FC1, FC2, C3, C4, CP1, CP2), and lateral (elec-
trodes F3, F4, FC5, FC6, CP5, CP6, P3, P4)
columns. Each rANOVA used the within-subj ects
factors of type, with two levels (prime, target), and
topographic factors: For the midline column this
was electrode site (ve levels), and for the medial
and lateral analyses, this was hemisphere (left,
right) and anteriority (medial: frontocentral, cen-
troparietal, parietal; lateral: frontal, frontocentral,
centroparietal, parietal). These ANOVAs were
conducted on the mean amplitude of the critical
words corresponding to the 300500-ms (N400)
Table 2. Main effects of type and interactions with electrode site for the midline column in Experiment 2
Region Word Epoch (ms)
Type Type × Electrode
F(1, 22) pF(28, 616) p
Verb region Verb 300500 32.6 .0001** 2.91 ns
500800 7.1 .0142* 4.25 .0484*
Verb + 1 300500 4.47 .0462* 1.72 ns
500800 1.45 ns 1.84 ns
Verb + 2 300500 ,1 ns 1.19 ns
500800 ,1 ns 1.58 ns
Prepositional phrase region Preposition 300500 10.51 .0037** ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns 1.15 ns
Determiner 300500 8.27 .0088** 1.54 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns
Noun 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns
Postprepositional phrase region Noun + 1 300500 2.53 ns ,1 ns
500800 6.74 .0165* ,1 ns
Noun + 2 300500 8.73 .0073** ,1 ns
500800 4.37 .0484* ,1 ns
Note: Type: prime versus target. Time windows are relative to individual critical word onset; all words were time-locked and baselined
to the rst word in the region. Statistically signicant values are printed in bold.
*p , .05. **p , .01.
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and the 500800-ms (P600) epochs following the
onset of each of the words in the critical regions.
The GreenhouseGeisser correction was used for
F tests with more than one degree of freedom in
the numerator for all relevant analyses reported in
this paper. ANOVA results for the main effects
and interactions of sentence type (prime vs.
target) are reported in Tables 24.
Verb region results
A main effect of type was found in the 300500-ms
window in response to the verb at the midline, F(1,
22) = 32.6, p , .001, medial, F(1, 22) = 29,
p , .001, and lateral columns, F(1, 22) = 17.24,
p , .001, such that waveforms to target verbs
were reduced in amplitude (less negative) than
prime verbs (the N400 effect). A main effect of
type was found in the 500800-ms window in
response to the verb at midline, F(1, 22) = 7.1,
p , .05, and medial, F(1, 22) = 7.2, p , .05,
columns, reecting the reduced negativity for
target verbs in this time window as well (rather
than a P600 effect). There were signicant inter-
actions by electrode for this time window at
midline sites, F(4, 88) = 4.25, p , .05, and by
anteriority at lateral sites, F(3, 66) = 4.68,
p , .05, reecting a more central-posterior distri-
bution (seen in Figure 1). For the word immedi-
ately following the verb (verb + 1), a main effect
of type was found in the N400 window at
midline sites, F(1, 22) = 4.47, p , .05, and
medial sites, F
(1, 22) = 4.39, p , .05, with
targets being less negative than primes. At lateral
sites this interacted with anteriority, F(3, 66) =
4.68; p , .05. There was also an interaction by
anteriority at lateral sites for verb + 1 in the 500
800-ms time window, F(3, 66) = 3.7, p , .05.
For verb + 2, no signicant effects of type or
Table 3. Main effects of type and interactions with topographic factors for the medial column in Experiment 2
Region Word Epoch (ms)
Type
Type ×
Hemisphere
Type ×
Anteriority
Type ×
Hemisphere ×
Anteriority
F(1, 22) pF(1, 22) pF(2, 44) pF(2, 44) p
Verb region Verb 300500 29 .0001** ,1 ns 2.32 ns 1.21 ns
500800 7.2 .0136* ,1 ns 3.47 ns ,1 ns
Verb + 1 300500 4.39 .0478* ,1 ns 2.6 ns ,1 ns
500800 1.58 ns ,1 ns 2.22 ns ,1 ns
Verb + 2 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.75 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.58 ns ,
1 ns
Prepositional phrase region Preposition 300500 2.82 ns 2.35 ns ,1 ns 2.25 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.07 ns ,1 ns
Determiner 300500 2.24 ns ,1 ns 2.32 ns 1.04 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 3.47 ns ,1 ns
Noun 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 2.12 ns
Postprepositional phrase region Noun + 1 300500 2.79 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.22 ns
500800 8.83 .0071** ,1
ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
Noun + 2 300500 10.99 .0032** ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 5.31 .0311* ,1 ns 1.62 ns 4.34 .0201*
Note: Type: prime versus target. Time windows relative to individual critical word onset; all words were time-locked and baselined to
the rst word in the region. Statistically signicant values are printed in bold.
*p , .05. **p , .01.
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Table 4. Main effects of type and interactions with topographic factors for the lateral column in Experiment 2
Region Word Epoch (ms)
Type Type × Hemisphere Type × Anteriority
Type ×
Hemisphere ×
Anteriority
F(1, 22) pF(1, 22) pF(2, 44) pF(2, 44) p
Verb region Verb 300500 17.24 .0004** ,1 ns 3.76 ns 1.33 ns
500800 3.31 ns ,1 ns 4.68 .0387* ,1 ns
Verb + 1 300500 1.66 ns ,1 ns 5.26 .0287* ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 3.7 .0351* ,1 ns
Verb + 2 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns 2.1 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 3.81 .0318* ,1 ns
Prepositional phrase region Preposition 300
500 3.89 ns 4.27 .0508 ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
Determiner 300500 1.2 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.39 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 2.69 ns
Noun 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.39 ns
500800 ,1 ns 2.74 ns ,1 ns 2.69 ns
Postprepositional phrase region Noun + 1 300500 3.23 ns 1.2 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 6.11 .0217* ,1 ns ,1 ns
1.06 ns
Noun + 2 300500 8.3 .0087** ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 5.44 .0292* ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.33 ns
Note: Type: prime versus target. Time windows relative to individual critical word onset; all words were time-locked and baselined to the rst word in the region. Statistically
signicant values are printed in bold.
*p , .05. **p , .01.
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interactions were found in either of the time
windows ( Fs , 2), other than an interaction by
anteriority at lateral sites in the 500800-ms
window, F(3, 66) = 3.81, p , .05. Importantly,
there were no signicant differences in the 300
500-ms window following the verb + 2, so that
this window could then serve as a reliable baseline
for the following PP region.
Prepositional phrase region results
A main effect of type was found in the 300500-ms
time window in response to with at midline sites,
F(1, 22) = 10.51, p , .005, such that waveforms
to target sentences were reduced in amplitude
(less negative) than prime sentences (N400 rep-
etition effect). In the 500800-ms epoch, no inter-
action by electrode or main effects were found in
any columns, in response to with (Fs , 2). A
main effect of type was found in the 300500-ms
time window in response to the determiner at
midline sites, F(1, 22) = 8.27, p , .005, such that
waveforms to prime sentences were more positive
than those to target sentences (P600 effect). No
other signicant effects were found at the determi-
ner (Fs , 2) or at the noun ( Fs , 1).
Postprepositional phrase region results
No signicant effects were found to the rst word
in this region (noun + 1) in the 300500-ms time
window (Fs , 1). However, a main effect of type
was found in the P600 time window in response
to the noun + 1 at midline sites, F(1, 22) = 6.74,
p , .05, medial sites, F(1, 22) = 8.83, p , .005,
and lateral sites, F(1, 22) = 6.11, p , .05, such
that waveforms to targets were reduced in ampli-
tude (less positive) than those to primes. No inter-
actions by electrode or topographic factor were
found (Fs , 1). For the second word in this
region (noun + 2), signicant main effects of type
were found in the 300500-ms time window at
midline sites, F(1, 22) = 8.73, p , .005, medial
sites, F(1, 22) = 10.99, p , .005, and lateral sites,
F(1, 22) = 8.3, p , .005, such that waveforms in
response to targets were less positive than those to
primes. The direction of this effect was reversed
in polarity from an N400 effect of repetition; in
addition, words in this region were not repeated
between prime and target sentences. We therefore
interpret this effect as an early and continued
effect of syntactic priming (as in Ledoux et al.,
2007). No interaction by electrode was found
(F , 1). In addition, a signicant main effect of
type was found in the P600 time window following
noun + 2 at midline sites, F(1, 22) = 4.37, p , .05,
medial sites, F(1, 22) = 5.31, p , .05, and lateral
sites, F(1, 22) = 5.44, p , .05, also such that the
response to targets was less positive than that to
primes. No interaction by topographic factor was
found (F , 2), other than an interaction of type
by anteriority by hemisphere at lateral sites,
F(2,
44) = 4.34, p , .05.
Consistent with the eye-tracking results found in
Experiment 1, Experiment 2 showed repetition
priming at the repeated verb in the target sentence
(as indexed by the N400), which lingered on the
verb + 1, which was followed by a reduced negativity
for targets compared to primes at the preposition
(repetition effects of the preposition with), and a
small reduced positivity for determiners in target
sentences compared to determiners in prime sen-
tences. Immediately following exposure to the dis-
ambiguating material in the target sentences,
noun-attached targets showed a reduced positivity
relative to noun-attached primes. These results
suggest that processing a prime sentence facilitates
those syntactic processes that are responsible for
building or recovering the syntactic structures
required for noun attachment.
EXPERIMENT 3
Experiments 1 and 2 showed that processing of a
prime sentence containing a noun-attached PP-
modier facilitated processing of a structurally
identical target. The ERP experiment suggested
that the prime both caused repetition priming of
the main verb itself and facilitated syntactic proces-
sing following the point at which the sentence was
disambiguated towards noun modication.
Experiment 3 was designed to investigate priming
effects in a related, but distinct, sentence type,
modiergoal ambiguities, as in (8) and (9):
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8. The chef dropped the egg in the bowl before breakfast. (Goal
prime)
9. The chef dropped the egg on the counter in the bowl before
breakfast. (Modier prime)
Prime sentences like (8) and (9) were followed by
modier target sentences, like (10):
10. The girl dropped the blanket on the oor on the bed last
night. (Modier target)
These sentences contain a temporary ambiguity
between verb and noun modication, but the
semantic interpretation of the modifying expression
is either as a goal location (related to the verb) or an
attribute of the preceding noun (as opposed to an
instrument versus an attribute, as in Experiments
1 and 2). Prior eye-tracking experiments (Traxler,
2008) showed that reading a matching prime facili-
tates processing of structurally related targets at and
following disambiguation (e.g., at on the bed, in 10).
Like Experiment 2, Experiment 3 tested whethe r
this facilitation reected aspects of semantic
versus syntactic processing, or perhaps a combi-
nation of both.
Method
Participants
Twenty-four undergraduates from the University of
California, Davis gave informed consent and par-
ticipated in this study for course credit. All were
right-handed native speakers of Englis h with no
reported psychological/neurological disorders and
normal or corrected-to-normal vision and hearing.
The average age was 19.7 years (range: 1823).
Stimuli
Each participant read 80 experimental sentences:
40 prime and 40 target sentences containing modi-
ergoal ambiguities, like (810) above.
An additional 40 primetarget catch-trial pairs
were included, in which the prime sentence also
contained modiergoal ambiguities, but the
target sentences did not, as in the example below:
Catch-trial prime: The teacher read the letter to the class
to the principal at the staff meeting.
Catch-trial target: The celebrity read the appeal to the
director before lming started.
This was done so that it was not possible to predict
the syntactic structure of the target sentences. All
primetarget pairs contained the same verb.
Finally, 130 ller sentences of variable syntactic
structure were included. Some ller sentences had
main clause structures (The biologist discovered a
new species of frog), some contained relative clauses
(The drummer that criticized the guitarist quit the
band), and some contained multiple prepositional
phrases (The couple on the park bench looked at the
spaniel near the toddlers that chase after squirrels).
Primes and targets were counterbalanced across
four lists, so that each prime sentence in a particular
list was used as a target sentence in a different list.
Each participant was presented with one of the four
lists. This counterbalancing allowed for the com-
parison across prime and target items of the same
sentences, controlling for any potential differences
in lexical frequency or length between items.
Procedure
The procedures, EEG recording details, and data
reduction methods were the same as those reported
above for Experiment 2. As in Experiment 2, com-
prehension questions did not focus on the critical
manipulation (e.g., Target: The chef dropped the
egg on the counter in the bowl before breakfast.
T or F: The chef dropped an egg.). On average,
15.7% of trials were rejected due to the presence
of artefacts, and, on average, 34 per condition per
participant were included in the analysis (range:
2540). There were no signicant differences in
the number of trials rejected in each condition
(p . .6). Accuracy on the comprehension questions
for Experiment 3 was 93% on average (range: 85.7
100%) and did not differ between experimental and
ller trials (p = .68).
As in Experiment 2, we averaged ERPs corre-
sponding to critical regions rather than individual
critical words. Here, the verb region included the
verb (e.g., dropped in Sentence 8) and the determi-
ner and noun immediately following the verb (e.g.,
the blanket in Sentence 8). The critical PP region
included the disambiguating preposition (the
second on in Sentence 8), extending through the
determiner and noun (the bed in Sentence 8). In
other words, the critical PP region was the second
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Figure 4. Effect of type for the verb region for Experiment 3. Red lines represent waveforms in response to the prime sentence; in blue (dotted
line) is the response to the target sentence. Nine electrodes representing frontal, central, and posterior sites are shown. Negative is plotted up. The
verb region is shown (2000-ms epoch), covering the main verb, verb + 1, and verb + 2. The N400 time window (for the main verb) appears
shaded in light green (light gray), while the P600 time window is shaded in darker green (dark gray). To view a colour version of this gure,
please see the online issue of the Journal.
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Figure 5. Effect of type for the prepositional phrase region for Experiment 3. Red lines represent waveforms in response to the prime sentence; in
blue (dotted line) is the response to the target sentence. Nine electrodes representing frontal, central, and posterior sites are shown. Negative is
plotted up. The prepositional phrase region is shown (2000-ms epoch), covering the preposition, determiner, and noun. The P600 time windows
corresponding to the determiner and noun are shaded in darker green (dark gray). At the bottom left of the gure are topographic maps
displaying the distribution of the effects in the P600 time windows corresponding to the determiner and the noun. To view a colour
version of this gure, please see the online issue of the Journal.
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prepositional phrase. Results are reported below for
all the words in these two regions (e.g., . . .
/dropped the blanket/ . . . /on the bed).
Results and discussion
The ERPs for the verb and prepositional phrase are
shown in Figures 4 and 5. As can be seen in
Figure 4 (and supported by the statistics below), a
small but signicant N400 effect of repetition
priming was found in response to the repeated
verb, with a reduction in the N400 amplitude for
verbs in target sentences compared to verbs in
prime sentences. Figure 5 shows the ERPs to
words in the prepositional phrase region, as well
as topographic maps showing the distribution of
the syntac tic-priming effects; P600 amplitudes
were reduced in response to determiners and
nouns in target sentences compared to those in
prime sentences.
As in Experiment 2, repeated measures
ANOVAs were conducted for midline (electro des
Afz, Fz, Cz, Pz, POz), medial (electrodes FC1,
FC2, C3, C4, CP1, CP2), and lateral (electrodes
F3, F4, FC5, FC6, CP5, CP6, P3, P4) columns.
Each rANOVA used the within-subjects factors
of type (prime, target), and topographic factor(s):
for the midline column this was electrode site
(ve levels), and for the medial and lateral analyses,
this was hemisphere (left, right), and anteriority
(medial: frontocentral, centroparietal, parietal;
lateral: frontal, frontocentral, centroparietal, parie-
tal). These ANOVAs were conducted on the
mean amplitude of the critical words corresponding
to the 300500-ms (N400) and the 500800-ms
(P600) epochs following the onset of each of the
words in the critical regions. Results for the main
effects and interactions with sentence type (prime
vs. target) are reported in Tables 57.
Verb region results
There was a Type × Anteriority interaction at
lateral sites in the 300500-ms time window, F(3,
66) = 4.38, p , .05, and a Type × Hemisphere ×
Anteriority interaction at lateral sites in the 500
800-ms time window, F(3, 66) = 3.26, p , .05,
with a reduced negative deection for verbs in
target sentences relati ve to those in the prime sen-
tences. No main effects or interactions with topo-
graphic factors reached signicance for the words
Table 5. Main effects of type and interactions with electrode site for the midline column in Experiment 3
Region
Epoch (ms)
Type Type × Electrode
Word F(1, 22) pF(28, 616) p
Verb region Verb 300500 3.64 .069 2.8 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns
Verb + 1 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 1.88 ns ,1 ns
Verb + 2 300500 ,1 ns 1.47 ns
500800 ,1 ns 1.8 ns
Prepositional phrase region Preposition 300500 1.18 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns 2.79 ns
Determiner 300500 ,1 ns 4.56 .0174*
500800 1.11 ns 6.34 .0039*
Noun 300500 ,1 ns 3.66 .0338*
500800 2.08
ns 2.05 ns
Note: Type: prime versus target. Time windows are relative to individual critical word onset; all words were time-locked and baselined
to the rst word in the region. Statistically signicant values are printed in bold.
*p , .05. **p , .01.
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Table 6. Main effects of type and interactions with topographic factors for the medial column in Experiment 3
Region Word Epoch (ms)
Type
Type ×
Hemisphere Type × Anteriority
Type ×
Hemisphere ×
Anteriority
F(1, 22) pF(1, 22) pF(2, 44) pF(2, 44) p
Verb region Verb 300500 1.64 ns ,1 ns 1.06 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns 2.17 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
Verb + 1 300500 ,1 ns 3.17 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 1.98 ns 2.24 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
Verb + 2 300500 ,1 ns 1.9 ns 1.27 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns 2.34 ns 1.64
ns 1.05 ns
Prepositional phrase region Preposition 300500 1.09 ns ,1 ns 1.58 ns ,1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 2.64 ns 1.14 ns
Determiner 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns 3.93 .057 1.1 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns 7 .0026* ,1 ns
Noun 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns 2.17 ns ,1 ns
500800 1.14 ns ,1 ns 1.5 ns ,1 ns
Note: Type: prime versus target. Time windows relative to individual critical word onset; all words were time-locked and baselined to
the rst word in the region. Statistically signicant values are printed in bold.
*p , .05. **p , .01.
Table 7. Main effects of type and interactions with topographic factors for the lateral column in Experiment 3
Region Word Epoch (ms)
Type
Type ×
Hemisphere
Type ×
Anteriority
Type ×
Hemisphere ×
Anteriority
F(1, 22) pF(1, 22) pF(2, 44) pF(2, 44) p
Verb region Verb 300500 1.88 ns ,1 ns 4.38 .0196* 1.7 ns
500800 ,1 ns 1.98 ns 2.62 ns 3.26 .0477*
Verb + 1 300500 ,1 ns 1.9 ns 2.17 ns 3.62 .0356*
500800 1.53 ns 3.17 ns ,1 ns 2.18 ns
Verb + 2 300500 ,1 ns 1.04 ns ,1 ns 1.75 ns
500800 ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 2.42 ns
Prepositional phrase region Preposition 300500 3.27 ns
,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
500800 1.22 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.08 ns
Determiner 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.68 ns 2.22 ns
500800 1.92 ns ,1 ns 5.13 .0102* 1.2 ns
Noun 300500 ,1 ns ,1 ns 1.56 ns ,1 ns
500800 5.88 .0235* ,1 ns ,1 ns ,1 ns
Note: Type: prime versus target. Time windows relative to individual critical word onset; all words were time-locked and baselined to
the rst word in the region. Statistically signicant values are printed in bold.
*p , .05. **p , .01.
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following the verb (verb + 1, verb + 2) in either the
300500-ms or 500800-ms time windows, rela-
tive to critical word onset (Fs , 2).
Prepositional phrase region results
No main effects or interactions with topographic
factors reached signicance in response to the pre-
position, in either the N400 or P600 time windows
(Fs , 2.3). In response to the determiner, there was
a signicant effect in the N400 window at midline
sites, F(1, 22) = 4.56, p , .05, and there was a
Type × Electrode interaction in the P600 window
at midline sites, F(28, 616) = 6.34, p , .005, and
a Type × Anteriority interaction at medial sites,
F(2, 44) = 7, p , .005, and lateral sites,
F(3, 66) = 5.13, p , .05, with determiners in
prime sentences having a larger positive deection
than those in target sentences. At the noun, there
was an interaction by electrode in the N400
window, F(1, 22) = 3.66, p , .05, at midline
sites, and a main effect of type in the lateral
columns, F(1, 22) = 5.88, p , .05, with nouns in
prime sentences having a larger positive deection
than those in target sentences.
In summary, as in Experiment 2, Experiment 3
also showed repetition priming at the repeated
verb in the target sentence, indexed by an N400
effect. This lexical repetition effect was less robust
than that in Experiment 2 and was present only at
some lateral electrode sites. This may be because
the length of the sentences in Experiment 3 (average
= 13.5 words; range: 1017) was, on average, longer
than that in Experiment 2 (average = 11.2; range:
10
14; p , .005). Since the verbs always occurred
early (Word 3) in the sentence, longer sentence
length means that there was more material (i.e., a
longer duration) separating the verb in the prime
sentence from the verb in the target sentence in
Experiment 3 than in Experiment 2. This could
have led the verb repetition effect to be smaller in
Experiment 3 than in Experiment 2.
Most importantly for the current study, modier
targets showed reduced P600 amplitudes in
response to the determiner and noun of the disam-
biguating prepositional phrase, compared to modi-
er primes. As can be seen in the topographic maps
at the bottom of Figure 5, these syntactic-priming
effects showed a more posterior distribution than
those found in Experiment 2, which were more
widely distributed across the scalp (see Figure 3).
Overall, consistent with Experiment 2, the results
of Experiment 3 provide evidence that processing
a prime sentence containing a syntactically ambig-
uous prepositional phrase facilitates syntactic pro-
cessing of a subsequent target sentence containing
the same structure.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
In Experiment 1, exposure to a noun-attached
prime sentence facilitated the processing of noun-
attached target sentences, starting shortly after par-
ticipants encountered disambiguating material. As
far as we know, this is the rst demonstration of
priming during online interpretation of this sen-
tence type. Expe riment 2, consistent with previous
ERP experiments, showed reduced P600s follow-
ing syntactically disambiguating material when
noun-attached targets followed noun-attached
primes (Ledoux et al., 2007; Tooley et al., 2009).
These reduced positivities occurred while partici-
pants were processing the words immediately fol-
lowing the noun that disambiguated prepositional
phrase attachment in favour of noun modication.
The results from Experiment 2 suggest that facili-
tated syntactic analysis or reanalysis contributed to
speeded target-sentence processing. Experiment 3
also showed reduced P600 effects following disam-
biguating material when a noun-attached prime
preceded a noun-attached target in sentences con-
taining modiergoal ambiguities.
Taken together, the results of Experiments 13
suggest the following scenario: First, participants
have an overall bias for verb attachment when pro-
cessing our test sentences (and similar sentences)
when they are presented in isolation. In
Experiments 1 and 2, verb-attachment bias causes
processing difculty in the prime sentences
because an instrument interpretation is not correct
in this case (e.g, . . . hit with the bruise . . . ), but
this is reduced when the structure is repeated in
the target sentences. In Experiment 3, the initial
goal interpretation of the rst PP-modier proves
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incorrect upon encountering a second PP-modier
(the actual goal), and readers are forced to undertake
a kind of syntactic displacement, in which the pre-
viously verb-attached modifying phrase must be
reattached to a preceding noun.
All of the experiments support an account under
which processing a prime sentence that shares
aspects of syntactic form with the (ultimately)
correct reading of the target facilitates structural
reanalysis. This facilitation could occur because
the prime sentence makes the specic structural
alternative to the initial interpretation more
salient. Alternatively, processing the prime could
facilitate more general structural revision processes,
such as the operations that undo prior syntactic
choices and replace them with other licensed
options. This account explains the basic facilitation
effects found with eye tracking (Experiment 1), as
well as why processing a noun-attached prime
leads to reduced positivities when processing a
noun-attached target (Experiments 2 and 3).
(This does not mean that verb-attachment bias
cannot be over-ridden, nor that all primes will
produce reduced positivities under all circum-
stances, however.)
The current results provide a further demon-
stration of the value of ERP methods in studying syn-
tactic-priming effects during online sentence
processing. Previous studies on other sentence types
have shown that exposure to a prime sentence can
inuence behaviour, including decisions about
when and where to move the eyes during reading
and while listening (Arai et al., 2007; Carminati
et al., 2008; Thothathiri & Snedeker, 2008a,
2008b; Traxler & Tooley, 2008), as well as judge-
ments about the ultimate interpretation of globally
ambiguous sentences (Branigan et al., 2005).
Changes in behaviour in response to a prime sen-
tence should occur irrespective of whether semantic
or syntactic processes are facilitated. Hence, behav-
ioural measures can show that exposure to a prime
sentence affects some aspect or aspects of target
sentence processing, but they may not, by them-
selves, provide substantial evidence regarding
what precise aspects of processing are being facili-
tated. ERPs provide a valuable supplement
because some aspects of the response are sensitive
to syntactic properties of stimuli, while others are
sensitive to semantic properties (Kutas, van
Petten, & Klueder , 2006; Nakano et al., 2010;
but see Kim & Osterhout, 2005; Kuperberg,
2007; Kuperberg, Kreher, Sitnikova, Caplan, &
Holcomb, 2007). More specically, manipulations
that ease semantic processing are associated with
reduced N400s, while manipulations that ease syn-
tactic processing are associated with reduced P600s
(Brown & Hagoort, 1993; Osterhout & Holcomb,
1992).
The fact that the current experimental manipu-
lation facilitated behavioural responses
(Experiment 1) and led to reduced positivities
during target processing (Experiments 2 and 3)
may inform various aspects of parsing theory. The
data suggest that, despite the substantial inuence
of referential factors on the processing of verb
noun attachment ambiguities, a syntactic decision
is still being made during the interpretive process.
Full exploration of the compatibility of verbnoun
attachment priming effects will require additional
experimentation. For example, the construal
account suggests that relative clause modiers will
be treated differently from prepositional phrase
modiers (the former reecting nonprimary
relations, the latter reecting primary relations). In
short, according to the construal account, all poss-
ible structures compatible with the input are built
when readers encounter nonprimary relations
(e.g., rela tive clause modiers), and contextual
factors can quickly inuence the ranking of acti-
vated candidate structures. As such, encountering
an unexpected relative clause modier may not
require syntactic revision; instead, it may simply
lead to an increase in the activation of the relative
clause parse. If such a senten ce (e.g., The driver
of the car that had the mustache ...)wasaddition-
ally primed by a preceding sentence with a similar
structure, a different pattern of ERPs might occur
from that seen in the current experiment.
Namely, syntactic priming of nonprimary relations,
such as relative clause modiers, could result in
reduced negativities (indicative of facilitated
semantic processing) rather than reduced positiv-
ities (which indicate a syntactic component to the
priming effect).
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The referential hypothesis views the difculty of
processing noun-attached modiers as reecting a
kind of pragmatic oddity (Altmann et al., 1994;
Altmann & Steedman, 1988; Ni et al., 1996).
That is, when a sentence is presented in a null
context, comprehenders discourse representa tions
will include only those entities for whom explicit
evidence is available in the input. If a denite,
singular noun phrase appears, comprehenders
assume a single relevant entity. If a sentence con-
tinues with an expression that modies the single,
relevant entity, that material will often times be
treated as redundant or anomalous. Minimally,
comprehenders will have a strong tendency to
revise their discourse model to include contrasting
entities. On this account, interpreting noun-
attached modiers in the processing environment
that prevailed in the current experiments will
involve making and revising semantic commit-
ments. While the results of the two priming exper-
iments did not produce any strong or direct
evidence of semantic revision, the absence of a
reduced negativity at and following the point of
syntactic disambiguation does not rule out such
effects. The most conservative interpretation
would be that comprehenders rejected the preferred
verb-attachment solution because of properties of
the noun within the prepositional phrase.
However, the ERP results suggest that, when the
verb-attachment interpretation was aban doned, a
syntactic revision accompanied semantic reinter-
pretation. This account can explain the reduced
positivity in targets that followed noun-attached
primes in Experiments 2 and 3. It may also indicate
why there were greater rst-pass regressions from
the postnoun scoring region in Experiment 1
when the noun-attached target sentence followed
a verb-attached prime. It is an open question as
to the ERP response that would occur based on
contextual manipulation of discourse entities, but
one fairly obvious prediction is that embedding
our noun-attached targets in referentially
supportive contexts would lead to reduced nega-
tivities at and following the critical noun, some-
thing that we are currently testing in a new study
(e.g., mustache in 7).
The second set of conclusions relates to the
good-enough parsing hypothesis (Christianson,
Williams, Zacks, & Ferreira, 2010; Ferreira,
2003; Swets, Desmet, Hambrick, & Ferreira,
2007). Comprehenders sometimes misinterpret
sentences that they hear or read. These misinter-
pretations may linger, despite the available syntactic
and semantic cues. Misinterpretations may occur
even in cases where the grammar would seem to
rule out the syntactic structure that accompanies
that interpretation, as in The coach smiled at the
player tossed the frisbee (Tabor et al., 2004). The
good-enough parsing hypothesis attributes these
various failures to underspecication or lack of spe-
cication of syntactic relations in sentences.
Syntactic relations may be underspecied when
lexical cues provide sufcient information about
the event to which a sentence refers (e.g., mouse,
cheese, and eat specify an event in which the
mouse eats and the cheese gets eaten, any syntax
being absent), when comprehension demands are
low (as in most psycholinguistic experiments), or
when syntax is more difcult (as in passives,
garden-path sentences, or globally ambiguous sen-
tences). One version of this account indicates that
syntactic reanalysis may not be an all-or-nothing
process and might not be completed unless ques-
tions probing unresolved aspects of the sentence
structure challenge the resultant interpretation
(Christianson et al., 2010, p. 205). This approach
to parsing differs from the vast majority of other
accounts, whether they assume two-stage,
restricted information systems (Frazier, 1979;
Frazier & Clifton, 1996), constraint-based
accounts (e.g., MacDonald et al., 1994;
Tanenhaus et al., 1995; Vosse & Kempen, 2000,
2009), or unrestricted race-based parsers (e.g.,
Pickering et al., 2011; Traxler, Pickering, &
Clifton, 1998), all of which assume that parsing is
obligatory (by whatever means).
In the current experiments, comprehension
questions were asked after all critical target sen-
tences, but did not focus on the temporary syntactic
ambiguity (e.g., Who got hit? or What did the girl use
to hit the boy?) Focusing questions can strongly
inuence the interpretation of prepositional
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BOUDEWYN ET AL.
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phrase modier ambiguities (see, e.g., Liversedge,
Pickering, Branigan, & van Gompel, 1998;
Liversedge, Pickering, Clayes, & Branigan,
2003). In addition, metalinguistic judgement
tasks, such as those requiring participants to judge
the acceptability of critical sentences, may inuence
the P600 effect. For example, in one study, P600
deections in response to syntactic anomalies that
were embedded in syntactically complex (object-
relative) sentences were found when participants
made acceptability judgements about the sentences,
but not when participants read for comprehension
and answered true/false comprehension questions
to a subset of sentences (Kolk et al., 2003). These
and other results (see Kuperberg, 2007, for a dis-
cussion of the inuence of task demands on the
P600 effect) suggest that questions highlighting
the syntactic manipulation under examination can
enhance the P600 effect. However, in the current
experiments, participants were not required to
make an acceptability judgement about the sen-
tences, nor were they asked focusing questions.
Instead, the true/false comprehension questions
that appeared after target sentences were akin to a
simple memory test. This task was intended to
encourage attentive reading, but was unlikely to
highlight the particular structure being tested or
the difference between experimental conditions
the way an acceptability judgement or other meta-
linguistic task might have.
Despite a lack of focusing questions, the overall
syntactic structure of the prime sentence appeared
to inuence readers response to the target sen-
tences. When the prime and target sentences had
matching syntactic structures, in that both had a
prepositional phrase that modied a noun (rather
than the preceding main verb), processing was
facilitated (reading times were shorter, and the
ERPs to the targets were less positive). These
results would seem to indicate that considerable
syntactic work was being undertaken to resolve a
temporary ambiguity, despite the absence of focus-
ing questions or a high-stakes experimental
context. We might therefore conclude that
readers routinely compute syntactic relations
under conditions that are conducive to good-
enough solutions. Alternatively, we may have
discovered that repe ated syntactic structures are
sufcient to overcome the comprehenders ten-
dency to underspecify syntactic relationships. If
so, that would beg the question of how readers
register the repetition of structure if, during the
processing of the prime sentence, they apply
good-enough heuristics.
Limitations and future directions
One potential concern with the current experiment
is that all of the target sentences had verbs that also
appeared in the prime sentences. This procedure
was adopted because prior comprehension
priming studies have usually shown the most
robust effects under these conditions. However,
we do not know whether priming would occur if
different verbs appeared in the prime and target
sentences. Further, we do not know whether this
change would affect the ERP outcomes. It is poss-
ible that a reduced N400, rather than a reduced
P600, would occur in the target sentence in the
absence of verb repetition. We plan to test this
hypothesis in a future experiment. It will also be
important to gather further evidence with regard
to potential distinctions between processing
before and after verb-argument saturation. One
possibility would be to look at other processing
environments involving adjunct modiers, such as
noun-modifying full relative clauses (e.g., Traxler
et al., 1998).
CONCLUSIONS
An eye-tracking experiment and two ERP exper -
iments showed that exposure to a difcult noun-
attached prime sentence inuenced processing
and interpretation of a subsequent noun-attached
target sentence. As in previous priming studies,
reading times were reduced when the overall syn-
tactic form of the prime sentence matched that of
the target. ERPs provided evidence that the
noun-attached prime affected syntactic processes
during interpretation or reinterpretation of a mod-
ifying expression in the target sentence. Hence,
syntactic-structure-building processes are subject
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PRIMING PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE ATTACHMENT
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to priming in verbnoun attachment ambiguities,
as they are in other sentence types.
Original manuscript received 13 December 2012
Accepted revision received 19 March 2013
First published online 18 July 2013
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