Syntactic and semantic processing of Chinese middle sentences: evidence from event-related potentials

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Scalp-recorded event-related potentials are known to be sensitive to particular aspects of sentence processing. The N400 component is widely recognized as an effect closely related to lexical–semantic processing. The absence of an N400 effect in participants performing tasks in Indo-European languages has been considered evidence that failed syntactic category processing appears to block lexical–semantic integration and that syntactic structure building is a prerequisite of semantic analysis. An event-related potential experiment was designed to investigate whether such syntactic primacy can be considered to apply equally to Chinese sentence processing. Besides correct middles, sentences with either single semantic or single syntactic violation as well as double syntactic and semantic anomaly were used in the present research. Results showed that both purely semantic and combined violation induced a broad negativity in the time window 300–500 ms, indicating the independence of lexical–semantic integration. These findings provided solid evidence that lexical–semantic parsing plays a crucial role in Chinese sentence comprehension.

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