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EEG pattern classification of semantic and syntactic Influences on subject-verb agreement in production


Acheson,  Daniel J.
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;


Veenstra,  Alma
Psychology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;


Meyer,  Antje S.
Language Comprehension Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;


Hagoort,  Peter
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;

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Acheson, D. J., Veenstra, A., Meyer, A. S., & Hagoort, P. (2014). EEG pattern classification of semantic and syntactic Influences on subject-verb agreement in production. Poster presented at the Sixth Annual Meeting of the Society for the Neurobiology of Language (SNL 2014), Amsterdam.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-9C99-2
Subject-verb agreement is one of the most common
grammatical encoding operations in language
production. In many languages, morphological
inflection on verbs code for the number of the head
noun of a subject phrase (e.g., The key to the cabinets
is rusty). Despite the relative ease with which subjectverb
agreement is accomplished, people sometimes
make agreement errors (e.g., The key to the cabinets
are rusty). Such errors offer a window into the early
stages of production planning. Agreement errors are
influenced by both syntactic and semantic factors, and
are more likely to occur when a sentence contains either
conceptual or syntactic number mismatches. Little
is known about the timecourse of these influences,
however, and some controversy exists as to whether
they are independent. The current study was designed
to address these two issues using EEG. Semantic and
syntactic factors influencing number mismatch were
factorially-manipulated in a forced-choice sentence
completion paradigm. To avoid EEG artifact associated
with speaking, participants (N=20) were presented with
a noun-phrase, and pressed a button to indicate which
version of the verb ‘to be’ (is/are) should continue
the sentence. Semantic number was manipulated
using preambles that were semantically-integrated or
unintegrated. Semantic integration refers to the semantic
relationship between nouns in a noun-phrase, with
integrated items promoting conceptual-singularity.
The syntactic manipulation was the number (singular/
plural) of the local noun preceding the decision. This
led to preambles such as “The pizza with the yummy
topping(s)... “ (integated) vs. “The pizza with the tasty
bevarage(s)...” (unintegrated). Behavioral results showed
effects of both Local Noun Number and Semantic
Integration, with more errors and longer reaction times
occurring in the mismatching conditions (i.e., plural
local nouns; unintegrated subject phrases). Classic ERP
analyses locked to the local noun (0-700 ms) and to the
time preceding the response (-600 to 0 ms) showed no
systematic differences between conditions. Despite this
result, we assessed whether difference might emerge
using multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA). Using the
same epochs as above, support-vector machines with a
radial basis function were trained on the single-trial level
to classify the difference between Local Noun Number
and Semantic Integration conditions across time and
channels. Results revealed that both conditions could
be reliably classified at the single subject level, and
that classification accuracy was strongest in the epoch
preceding the response. Classification accuracy was
at chance when a classifier trained to dissociate Local
Noun Number was used to predict Semantic Integration
(and vice versa), providing some evidence of the
independence of the two effects. Significant inter-subject
variability was present in the channels and time-points
that were critical for classification, but earlier timepoints
were more often important for classifying Local Noun
Number than Semantic Integration. One result of this
variability is classification performed across subjects was
at chance, which may explain the failure to find standard
ERP effects. This study thus provides an important first
test of semantic and syntactic influences on subject-verb
agreement with EEG, and demonstrates that where
classic ERP analyses fail, MVPA can reliably distinguish
differences at the neurophysiological level.