How readers process syntactic input depends on their goals


  • Vandendaele Aaron
  • Declerck Mathieu
  • Grainger Jonathan
  • Snell Joshua

document type



During reading, the recognition of words is influenced by the syntactic compatibility of surrounding words: a sentence-superiority effect. However, when the goal is to make syntactic categorization decisions about single target words, these decisions are influenced by the syntactic congruency rather than compatibility of surrounding words. Although both these premises imply that readers can extract syntactic information from multiple words in parallel, they also suggest that how the brain organizes syntactic input-and consequently how surrounding stimuli affect word recognition-depends on the reader's top-down goals. The present study provides a direct test of this conception. Participants were offered nouns and verbs amidst a grammatical context ('this horse fell') and ungrammatical context ('fell horse this'). Using a conditional task setup, we manipulated the amount of emphasis put on respectively sentences and single words. In two blocks readers were instructed to make sentence grammaticality judgments only if the middle word was respectively noun or verb; in two other blocks readers were instructed to syntactically categorize the middle word only if the sentence was respectively correct or incorrect. We established an interaction effect whereby the impact of grammatical correctness on syntactic categorization decisions was greater than the effect of grammatical correctness per se. This first sentence superiority effect in the categorization of single words, combined with the absence of this effect in prior flanker studies, leads us to surmise that word-to-word syntactic constraints only operate if the reader is engaged in sentence processing.

more information