Alma Veenstra

Adventures of a psycholinguist

Semantic integration

on 22 January 2014

Researchers have long believed that subject-verb agreement is only affected by grammatical factors. One example is attraction, here the verb does not agree with number of  the head noun, but with the number of an intervening local noun: the key to the cabinets are missing. So instead of singular, the verb becomes plural, which we call an agreement error.

More and more studies are finding semantic factors in addition to the grammatical factors. One is brought about by semantic integration (not to be confused with semantic integration as often seen in EEG reading studies). The semantic integration I am discussing here concerns the conceptual link between two words in a phrase. For example, in the phrase the bowl with the stripes, the bowl and the stripes are conceptually tightly linked: the stripes are part of the bowl. In the bowl with the spoons the bowl and the spoons are less tightly linked. The tightness of this link influences the agreement process.

However, the exact effect of semantic integration is under debate. One account claims that a tight link makes the grammatical attraction effect stronger. Another account claims that a tight link makes the phrase “feel” singular, whereas a weak link makes the phrase “feel” plural. This means that a sort of semantic attraction can occur, which increases agreement error rates.

We looked at the effect of semantic integration in Dutch, and found support for the second, notional number account. So in addition to the grammatical attraction effect, we found that agreement was more difficult when a singular head noun was combined with a “plural feel”.

Read more:

Veenstra, A., Acheson, D. J., Bock, K., & Meyer, A. S. (2014). Effects of semantic integration on the production of subject-verb agreement: evidence from Dutch. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29(3), 355-380.

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