This paper presents two speeded grammaticality judgment studies dealing with subject-verb agreement processes in sentence comprehension. Like English, German requires subject-verb agreement in number. Despite the simplicity of this rule, agreement errors occur even in written language, like in (1) (from Bock & Miller, 1991: 46).
The plural noun inside the prepositional phrase seems to be responsible for the error - the verb agrees with this local noun instead of agreeing with the subject. This type of agreement error occurs in comprehension processes as well (Branigan et al., 1995; Hölscher, 1996; Nicol et al., 1997; Pearlmutter et al. 1995). While there is a clear asymmetry between singular and plural head nouns in production, the comprehension site has received much less attention so far.
Experiment 1 investigates number attraction in a novel construction - a construction where the head noun was the subject of an embedded clause and the local noun was the subject of a relative clause attached to the head noun:
The two nouns match or mismatch in number, and the head noun is either singular or plural.
Results: If the head noun and the local noun mismatch for number, erroneous judgments increase substantially (mismatch effect). This effect is stronger when the head noun is plural and the local noun is singular. This asymmetry contrasts with results from production studies where more agreement errors have been found if the head noun is singular and the local noun is plural.
In experiment 2, we are looking at complex DPs in the following configuration:
The head noun is again singular or plural, and the local noun matches or mismatches.
Preliminary data indicate that there is no mismatch-effect for the plural head noun but still a small mismatch effect for the singular head noun. The asymmetry here is similiar to the asymmetry in speech production.
We will discuss why we could replicate the classical asymmetry in (4) but not in (2) and show how this follows from general principles applying to different constructions.
Bock, K. & Miller, C.A. (1991): Broken Agreement. Cognitive Psychology, 23, 45-93
Branigan, H.P., Liversedge, S.P., & Pickering, M.J. (1995): Verb agreement in written comprehension and production. Paper presented at the 8th Annual CUNY Sentence Processing Conference, Tuscon, AZ.
Hölscher, C. (1996): Subjekt-Verb-Kongruenz in Produktion und Rezeption. Unpubl. Master Thesis, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Nicol, J.L., Forster, K.I., & Veres, C. (1997): Subject-Verb Agreement Processes in Comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 41, 569-587
Pearlmutter, N.J., Garnsey, S.M., Bock, K. (1995): Subject- verb agreement processes in sentence comprehension. Paper presented at the 8th Annual CUNY Sentence Processing Conference, Tuscon, AZ.