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Van Berkum, J. J. A., Brown, C. M., & Hagoort, P. (1999). Early referential context effects in sentence processing: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Journal of Memory and Language, 41(2), 147-182. doi:10.1006/jmla.1999.2641.
AbstractAn event-related brain potentials experiment was carried out to examine the interplay of referential and structural factors during sentence processing in discourse. Subjects read (Dutch) sentences beginning like “David told the girl that … ” in short story contexts that had introduced either one or two referents for a critical singular noun phrase (“the girl”). The waveforms showed that within 280 ms after onset of the critical noun the reader had already determined whether the noun phrase had a unique referent in earlier discourse. Furthermore, this referential information was immediately used in parsing the rest of the sentence, which was briefly ambiguous between a complement clause (“ … that there would be some visitors”) and a relative clause (“ … that had been on the phone to hang up”). A consistent pattern of P600/SPS effects elicited by various subsequent disambiguations revealed that a two-referent discourse context had led the parser to initially pursue the relative-clause alternative to a larger extent than a one-referent context. Together, the results suggest that during the processing of sentences in discourse, structural and referential sources of information interact on a word-by-word basis.