The role of prosodic breaks and pitch accents in grouping words during on-line sentence processing

Bögels, S., Schriefers, H., Vonk, W., & Chwilla, D. J. (2011). The role of prosodic breaks and pitch accents in grouping words during on-line sentence processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23, 2447-2467. doi:10.1162/jocn.2010.21587.
The present study addresses the question whether accentuation and prosodic phrasing can have a similar function, namely, to group words in a sentence together. Participants listened to locally ambiguous sentences containing object- and subject-control verbs while ERPs were measured. In Experiment 1, these sentences contained a prosodic break, which can create a certain syntactic grouping of words, or no prosodic break. At the disambiguation, an N400 effect occurred when the disambiguation was in conflict with the syntactic grouping created by the break. We found a similar N400 effect without the break, indicating that the break did not strengthen an already existing preference. This pattern held for both object- and subject-control items. In Experiment 2, the same sentences contained a break and a pitch accent on the noun following the break. We argue that the pitch accent indicates a broad focus covering two words [see Gussenhoven, C. On the limits of focus projection in English. In P. Bosch & R. van der Sandt (Eds.), Focus: Linguistic, cognitive, and computational perspectives. Cambridge: University Press, 1999], thus grouping these words together. For object-control items, this was semantically possible, which led to a “good-enough” interpretation of the sentence. Therefore, both sentences were interpreted equally well and the N400 effect found in Experiment 1 was absent. In contrast, for subject-control items, a corresponding grouping of the words was impossible, both semantically and syntactically, leading to processing difficulty in the form of an N400 effect and a late positivity. In conclusion, accentuation can group words together on the level of information structure, leading to either a semantically “good-enough” interpretation or a processing problem when such a semantic interpretation is not possible.
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