Definitely saw it coming? The dual nature of the pre-nominal prediction effect

Damien S. Fleur, Monique Flecken, Joost Rommers, Mante S. Nieuwland* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

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In well-known demonstrations of lexical prediction during language comprehension, pre-nominal articles that mismatch a likely upcoming noun's gender elicit different neural activity than matching articles. However, theories differ on what this pre-nominal prediction effect means and on what is being predicted. Does it reflect mismatch with a predicted article, or ‘merely’ revision of the noun prediction? We contrasted the ‘article prediction mismatch’ hypothesis and the ‘noun prediction revision’ hypothesis in two ERP experiments on Dutch mini-story comprehension, with pre-registered data collection and analyses. We capitalized on the Dutch gender system, which marks gender on definite articles (‘de/het’) but not on indefinite articles (‘een’). If articles themselves are predicted, mismatching gender should have little effect when readers expected an indefinite article without gender marking. Participants read contexts that strongly suggested either a definite or indefinite noun phrase as its best continuation, followed by a definite noun phrase with the expected noun or an unexpected, different gender noun phrase (‘het boek/de roman’, the book/the novel). Experiment 1 (N = 48) showed a pre-nominal prediction effect, but evidence for the article prediction mismatch hypothesis was inconclusive. Informed by exploratory analyses and power analyses, direct replication Experiment 2 (N = 80) yielded evidence for article prediction mismatch at a newly pre-registered occipital region-of-interest. However, at frontal and posterior channels, unexpectedly definite articles also elicited a gender-mismatch effect, and this support for the noun prediction revision hypothesis was further strengthened by exploratory analyses: ERPs elicited by gender-mismatching articles correlated with incurred constraint towards a new noun (next-word entropy), and N400s for initially unpredictable nouns decreased when articles made them more predictable. By demonstrating its dual nature, our results reconcile two prevalent explanations of the pre-nominal prediction effect.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104335
Number of pages22
Early online date30 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

We thank Birgit Knudsen for help with EEG data collection and Elise van Wonderen for help with norming data collection. JR was partially supported by NWO Veni grant 275-89-032. We thank Tamara Swaab and two anonymous reviewers for providing helpful feedback on a previous draft of this manuscript. All materials associated with the current article are available on OSF at For the analyses and plots, we used the following packages for R (R Core Team, 2018): “brms” (Bürkner, 2017), “lme4” (Bates et al., 2014), “simr” (Green & MacLeod, 2016), “ggplot2” (Wickham, 2016), “dplyr” (Wickham, François, Henry & Müller, 2019), “patchwork” (Pederson, 2020), “emmeans” (Lenth, 2019).


  • Grammatical gender
  • Event-related potentials
  • Prediction
  • Definiteness
  • N400


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