Cortical representation of verbs with optional complements: The theoretical contribution of fMRI

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Abstract

Verbs like “eat” are special in that they can appear both with a complement (e.g., “John ate ice-cream”) and without a complement (“John ate”). How are such verbs with optional complements represented? This fMRI study attempted to provide neurally based constraints for the linguistic theory of the representation of verbs with optional complements. One linguistic approach suggests that the representation of these verbs in the lexicon includes two complementation frames (one with and one without the complement), similarly to verbs that allow two different types of complements (e.g., discover). Another approach assumes that only one frame is represented (with a complement) and, when the complement is omitted, the relevant thematic role is saturated, either lexically or syntactically. We compared the patterns of cortical activation of verbs with optional complements to verbs that take either one or two frames and to verbs with one or two complements. These comparisons—together with prior findings regarding the cortical activation related to the number of complementation frames and the number of complements—were used to decide between the theoretical approaches. We found support for the idea that verbs with optional complements have only one frame and that a lexical operation enables complement omission. We also used fMRI in the traditional manner and identified the fusiform gyrus and the temporo–parieto–occipital junction as the regions that participate in the execution of the omission and saturation of optional complements. Hum Brain Mapp, 2010. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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