Illusory licensing effects across dependency types: ERP evidence.


A number of recent studies have argued that grammatical illusions can arise in the process of completing linguistic dependencies, such that unlicensed material is temporarily treated as licensed due to the presence of a potential licensor that is semantically appropriate but in a syntactically inappropriate position. A frequently studied case involves illusory licensing of negative polarity items (NPIs) like ever and any, which must appear in the scope (i.e., c-command domain) of a negative element. Speakers often show intrusive licensing effects in sentences where an NPI is preceded but not c-commanded by a negative element, as in ∗The restaurants that no newspapers have recommended in their reviews have ever gone out of business. Existing accounts of intrusive licensing have focused on the role of general memory retrieval processes. In contrast, we propose that intrusive licensing of NPIs reflects semantic/pragmatic processes that are more specific to NPI licensing. As a test of this claim, we present results from an ERP study that presents a structurally matched comparison of intrusive licensing in two types of linguistic dependencies, namely NPI licensing and the binding of reflexive anaphors like himself, and herself. In the absence of a potential licensor, both NPIs and reflexives elicit a P600 response, but whereas there is an immediate ERP analog of the intrusion effect for NPI licensing, no such effect is found for reflexive binding. This suggests that the NPI intrusion effect does not reflect general-purpose retrieval mechanisms.

Brain and Language, 108, 40-55