The cost of question concealment: evidence from eyetracking and MEG


Although natural language appears to be largely compositional, the meanings of certain expressions cannot be straightforwardly recovered from the meanings of their parts. This study examined the online processing of one such class of expressions: concealed questions, in which the meaning of a complex noun phrase (the proof of the theorem) shifts to a covert question (what the proof of the theorem is) when mandated by a sub-class of question-selecting verbs (e.g., guess). Previous behavioral and magnetoencephalographic (MEG) studies have reported a cost associated with converting an entity denotation to an event. Our study tested whether both types of mean- ing-shift affect the same computational resources by examining the effects elicited by concealed questions in eye-tracking and MEG. Experiment 1 found evidence from eye-movements that verbs requiring the concealed question interpretation require more processing time than verbs that do not support a shift in meaning. Experiment 2 localized the cost of the concealed question interpretation in the left posterior temporal region, an area distinct from that affected by complement coercion. Experiment 3 presented the critical verbs in isolation and found no posterior temporal effect, confirming that the effect of Experiment 2 reflected sentential, and not lexical-level, processing.

Brain & Language, 107, 44–61