Number agreement in sentence comprehension: The relationship between grammatical and conceptual factors

Hamutal Kreiner, Simon Garrod, Patrick Sturt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Studies in theoretical linguistics argue that subject-verb agreement is more sensitive to grammatical number, while pronoun-antecedent agreement is more sensitive to conceptual number. This claim is robustly supported by speech production research, but few studies have examined this issue in comprehension. We investigated this dissociation between conceptual and grammatical number agreement in three eye-tracking reading experiments, using collective nouns like "group", which can be notionally interpreted as either singular or plural. Experiment 1 indicated that pronoun-antecedent agreement is conceptually driven; Experiment 2 indicated that subject-verb agreement is morpho-syntactically driven. Experiment 3 indicated that the morpho-grammatical processes that control the initial processing of subject-verb agreement do not bias later semantic processing of pronoun-antecedent number agreement, even when the anaphor and the verb occur in the same sentence, and the same collective noun is both the subject of the verb and antecedent of the pronoun. In view of these findings we propose that the processes that control number agreement in comprehension show a dissociation between semantic and morpho-syntactic processing that is similar to the dissociation demonstrated in speech-production. We discuss various theoretical frameworks that can account for this similarity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)829-874
Number of pages46
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to Hamutal Kreiner, Behavioral Sciences, Ruppin Academic Center, Emeq-Hefer 40250, Israel. E-mail: We would like to thank Prof. Kathryn Bock, for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. Remaining errors are our own. Various portions of this research were presented at the 2006 AMLaP conference in Nijmegen, Netherland, at the 2007 CUNY conference in La Jolla, USA, and at the 2010 AMLaP conference in York, UK. We thank the audiences of these conferences for their helpful comments. The research was supported by ESRC (Economic & Social Research Council) grant RES-000-23-0572 awarded to Patrick Sturt and Simon Garrod; and ESRC grant RES-062-23-1450 awarded to Patrick Sturt.


  • Collective nouns
  • Comprehension
  • Number agreement
  • Syntax and semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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