Predicting definite and indefinite referents during discourse comprehension: Evidence from event‐related potentials

Carter, G., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2022). Predicting definite and indefinite referents during discourse comprehension: Evidence from event‐related potentials. Cognitive Science, 46(2): e13092. doi:10.1111/cogs.13092.
Linguistic predictions may be generated from and evaluated against a representation of events and referents described in the discourse. Compatible with this idea, recent work shows that predictions about novel noun phrases include their definiteness. In the current follow-up study, we ask whether people engage similar prediction-related processes for definite and indefinite referents. This question is relevant for linguistic theories that imply a processing difference between definite and indefinite noun phrases, typically because definiteness is thought to require a uniquely identifiable referent in the discourse. We addressed this question in an event-related potential (ERP) study (N = 48) with preregistration of data acquisition, preprocessing, and Bayesian analysis. Participants read Dutch mini-stories with a definite or indefinite novel noun phrase (e.g., “het/een huis,” the/a house), wherein (in)definiteness of the article was either expected or unexpected and the noun was always strongly expected. Unexpected articles elicited enhanced N400s, but unexpectedly indefinite articles also elicited a positive ERP effect at frontal channels compared to expectedly indefinite articles. We tentatively link this effect to an antiuniqueness violation, which may force people to introduce a new referent over and above the already anticipated one. Interestingly, expectedly definite nouns elicited larger N400s than unexpectedly definite nouns (replicating a previous surprising finding) and indefinite nouns. Although the exact nature of these noun effects remains unknown, expectedly definite nouns may have triggered the strongest semantic activation because they alone refer to specific and concrete referents. In sum, results from both the articles and nouns clearly demonstrate that definiteness marking has a rapid effect on processing, counter to recent claims regarding definiteness processing.
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