The syntactic rules of natural languages are structure dependent. This means that they are based on the abstract hierarchical structure of groups of words, rather than the linear order of the words themselves. The meaning of a sentence is based on the way in which these words are grouped into constituents (this explains, for instance, why phrases such as "the deep blue sea" are ambiguous). The hierarchical nature of syntax is all the more intriguing if you realise that we speak in a linear, word-by-word fashion. How is it possible that there is a hierarchy in syntax when there is no hierarchy in the speech input that reaches our ears? The "easy" answer to this question is that our brains internally construct these hierarchical representations during language comprehension.
In my project, I use both behavioural and neuroscientific methods in order to understand how we build hierarchically structured representations during language comprehension. My ultimate aim is to use the results of these psycholinguistic experiments to inform theoretical debates about the nature of syntactic representations, thereby helping to bridge the divide between linguistics and psycholinguistics.