The comprehension of anomalous sentences: evidence from structural priming

Iva Ivanova, Martin J. Pickering, Holly P. Branigan, Janet F. McLean, Albert Costa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

20 Citations (Scopus)


We report three experiments investigating how people process anomalous sentences, in particular those in which the anomaly is associated with the verb. We contrast two accounts for the processing of such anomalous sentences: a syntactic account, in which the representations constructed for anomalous sentences are similar in nature to the ones constructed for well-formed sentences; and a semantic account, in which the representations constructed for anomalous sentences are erroneous, or altogether missing, and interpretation is achieved on the basis of semantic representations instead. To distinguish between these accounts, we used structural priming. First, we ruled out the possibility that anomaly per se influences the magnitude of the priming effect: Prime sentences with morphologically incorrect verbs produced similarly enhanced priming (lexical boost) to sentences with the same correct verbs (Exp. 1). Second, we found that prime sentences with a novel verb (Exp. 2) or a semantically and syntactically incongruent verb (Exp. 3) produced a priming effect, which was the same as that produced by well-formed sentences. In accord with the syntactic account, we conclude that the syntactic representations of anomalous sentences are similar to those constructed for well-formed sentences. Our results furthermore suggest that lexically-independent syntactic information is robust enough to produce well-formed syntactic representations during processing without requiring aid from lexically-based syntactic information.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-209
Number of pages17
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2012


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