Skip to main content

Grammatical category influences lateralized imagery for sentences*

<span class='sc'>abstract</span>

Natural language syntax has previously been thought to reflect abstract processing rules independent of meaning construction. However, grammatical categories may serve a functional role by allocating attention towards recurrent topics in discourse. Here, we show that listeners incorporate grammatical category into imagery when producing stick figure drawings from heard sentences, supporting the latter view. Participants listened to sentences with transitive verbs that independently varied whether a male or a female character (1) was mentioned first, (2) was the agent or recipient of an action, and (3) was the grammatical subject or object of the sentence. Replicating previous findings, we show that the first named character as well as the agent of the sentence tends to be drawn to the left in the image, probably reflecting left-to-right reading direction. But we also find that the grammatical subject of the sentence has a propensity to be drawn to the left of the object. We interpret this to suggest that grammatical category carries discursive meaning as an attention allocator. Our findings also highlight how language influences processes hitherto thought to be non-linguistic.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Mikkel Wallentin, Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, Aarhus University Hospital, Building 10-G-5, Nørrebrogade, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark. phone: +45-78464380; e-mail:
Hide All

No authors have competing interests or conflict of interests to declare. We wish to thank students and staff from Stenhus Gymnasium for their cooperation, especially Peter Fink for his help with coordinating testing. We also wish to thank Harald Wallentin Højholt and Gorm Wallentin Højholt for their help with data coding, and Anders Munch for helping with data collection and initial analyses.

Hide All
Avrutin S. (2006). Weak syntax. In Grodzinsky Y. & Amunts K. (Eds.), Broca’s region (pp. 4962). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barsalou L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617645.
Bates D., Mächler M., Bolker B. M., & Walker S. C. (2015). Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4. Journal of Statistical Software, 67, 148.
Ben-Shachar M., Palti D., & Grodzinsky Y. (2004). Neural correlates of syntactic movement: converging evidence from two fMRI experiments. NeuroImage, 21, 13201336.
Braine L. G., Schauble L., Kugelmass S., & Winter A. (1993). Representation of depth by children: spatial strategies and lateral biases. Developmental Psychology, 29, 466479.
Braswell G. S., & Rosengren K. S. (2002). The role of handedness in graphic production: interactions between biomechanical and cognitive factors in drawing development. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20, 581599.
Chafe W. (1994). Discourse, consciousness, and time. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Chatterjee A. (2001). Language and space: some interactions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5, 5561.
Chatterjee A., Southwood M. H., & Basilico D. (1999). Verbs, events and spatial representations. Neuropsychologia, 37, 395402.
Chokron S., & De Agostini M. (2000). Reading habits influence aesthetic preference. Cognitive Brain Research, 10, 4549.
Chomsky N. (2002). Syntactic structures, 2nd ed. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Clark H. H. (1966). The prediction of recall patterns in simple active sentences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 5, 99106.
Coventry K. R., Griffiths D., & Hamilton C. J. (2014). Spatial demonstratives and perceptual space: describing and remembering object location. Cognitive Psychology, 69, 4670.
Croft W., & Cruse A. D. (2004). Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dean A., & Carra L. (1989). Fundamentals of play directing, 5th ed. Long Grove: Waveland Press.
Delong K. A., Troyer M., & Kutas M. (2014). Pre-processing in sentence comprehension: sensitivity to likely upcoming meaning and structure. Language and Linguistics Compass, 8, 631645.
Dobel C., Diesendruck G., & Bölte J. (2007). How writing system and age influence spatial representations of actions: a developmental, cross-linguistic study. Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 18, 487491.
Egizii M., Denny J., Neuendord K. A., Skalski P. D., & Campbell R. (2012). Which way did he go? Directionality of film character and camera movement and subsequent spectator interpretation. Paper presented at The International Communication Association conference, Phoenix, AZ.
Frazier L. (1999). On sentence interpretation. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media.
Fritz J. B., Elhilali M., David S. V., & Shamma S. A. (2007). Auditory attention – focusing the searchlight on sound. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 17, 437455.
Fuhrman O., & Boroditsky L. (2010). Cross-cultural differences in mental representations of time: evidence from an implicit nonlinguistic task. Cognitive Science, 34, 14301451.
Gernsbacher M. A., & Hargreaves D. J. (1988). Accessing sentence participants: the advantage of first mention. Journal of Memory and Language, 27, 699717.
Gernsbacher M. A., Hargreaves D. J., & Beeman M. (1989). Building and accessing clausal representations: the advantage of first mention versus the advantage of clause recency. Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 735755.
Givón T. (1984). Syntax: a functional-typological introduction, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Gleitman L. R., January D., Nappa R., & Trueswell J. C. (2007). On the give and take between event apprehension and utterance formulation. Journal of Memory and Language, 57, 544569.
Gordon P. C., Grosz B. J., & Gilliom L. A. (1993). Pronouns, names, and the centering of attention in discourse. Cognitive Science, 17, 311347.
Gudde H. B., Coventry K. R., & Engelhardt P. E. (2016). Language and memory for object location. Cognition, 153, 99107.
Halliday M. A. K., & Matthiessen M. I. M. (2004). An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 3rd ed. London: Hodder Arnold.
Kranjec A., Lehet M., Bromberger B., & Chatterjee A. (2010). A sinister bias for calling fouls in soccer. PLoS ONE, 5, e11667.
Kristensen L. B. (2013). Context, you need: experimental approaches to information structure processing. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.
Kristensen L. B., Engberg-Pedersen E., Nielsen A. H., & Wallentin M. (2013). The influence of context on word order processing – an fMRI study. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 26, 7388.
Kristensen L. B., Engberg-Pedersen E., & Poulsen M. (2014a). Context improves comprehension of fronted objects. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 43, 125140.
Kristensen L. B., Engberg-Pedersen E., & Wallentin M. (2014b). Context predicts word order processing in Broca’s region. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 26, 27622777.
Kristensen L. B., & Wallentin M. (2015). Putting Broca’s region into context – fMRI evidence for a role in predictive language processing. In Willems R. (Ed.), Towards a cognitive neuroscience of natural language use (pp. 160181). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kuperberg G. R., & Jaeger T. F. (2015). What do we mean by prediction in language comprehension? Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 31, 3259.
Laanemets A. (2013). The passive voice in spoken and written Danish, Norwegian and Swedish: a comparative corpus-based study. Languages in Contrast, 13, 6789.
Levinson S. C. (2003). Space in language and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Maass A., Pagani D., & Berta E. (2007). How beautiful is the goal and how violent is the fistfight? Spatial bias in the interpretation of human behavior. Social Cognition, 25, 833852.
Maass A., & Russo A. (2003). Directional bias in the mental representation of spatial events. Psychological Science, 14(4), 296301.
Makuuchi M., Grodzinsky Y., Amunts K., Santi A., & Friederici A. D. (2013). Processing noncanonical sentences in Broca’s region: reflections of movement distance and type. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 694702.
Myachykov A., Ellis R., Cangelosi A., & Fischer M. H. (2013). Visual and linguistic cues to graspable objects. Experimental Brain Research / Experimentelle Hirnforschung Expérimentation cérébrale, 229, 545559.
Myachykov A., & Garrod S. (2008). Perception and word order in Russian and Finnish sentence production. In Ramm W. & Fabricius-Hansen C. (Eds.), Linearisation and Segmentation in Discourse. Multidisciplinary Approaches to Discourse, 2008 (MAD 08), Feb 20–23 2008 (pp. 8798). Lysebu, Oslo.
Myachykov A., Garrod S., & Scheepers C. (2012). Determinants of structural choice in visually situated sentence production. Acta Psychologica, 141, 304315.
Myachykov A., & Tomlin R. (2008). Perceptual priming and structural choice in Russian sentence production. Journal of Cognitive Science, 9, 3148.
Myachykov A., Tomlin R. S., & Posner M. I. (2005). Attention and empirical studies of grammar. Linguistic Review, 22(2/4), 347364.
O’Leary B. (2003). Hollywood camera movements and the films of Howard Hawks: a Functional Semiotic approach. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 1, 730.
Orne M. T. (1969). Demand characteristics and the concept of quasi-controls. In Rosenthal R. & Rosnow R. (Eds.), Artifact in behavioral research (pp. 143179). New York: Academic Press.
Parmentier F. B. R., Turner J., & Perez L. (2014). A dual contribution to the involuntary semantic processing of unexpected spoken words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 3845.
Román A., El Fathi A., & Santiago J. (2013). Spatial biases in understanding descriptions of static scenes: the role of reading and writing direction. Memory & Cognition, 41, 588599.
Salt B. (2005). A note on ‘Hollywood camera movements and the films of Howard Hawks: a Functional Semiotic approach’ by Brian O’Leary. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 3, 101103.
Talmy L. (2000). Toward a cognitive semantics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Talmy L. (2007). Atttention phenomena. In Geeraerts D. & Cuyckens H. (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics (pp. 264293). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Talmy L. (2011). Cognitive semantics: an overview. In Maienborn C., von Heusinger K., & Portner P. (Eds.), Semantics: an international handbook of natural language meaning (Vol. 1, pp. 622642): Walter de Gruyter.
Thompson C. K., den Ouden D.-B., Bonakdarpour B., Garibaldi K., & Parrish T. B. (2010). Neural plasticity and treatment-induced recovery of sentence processing in agrammatism. Neuropsychologia, 48, 32113227.
Thomsen D. B., & Kristensen L. B. (2015). Semantic role assignment in Danish children and adults. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, 46, 159198.
Tomlin R. S. (1995). Focal attention, voice, and word order. In Downing P. & Noonan M. (Eds.), Word order in discourse (pp. 517552). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
Tversky B., & Lee P. (1998). How space structures language. In Freksa C., Habel C., & Wender K.F. (Eds.), Spatial Cognition: an interdisciplinary approach to representing and processing spatial knowledge (pp. 157175). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Tylén K., Weed E., Wallentin M., Roepstorff A., & Frith C. D. (2010). Language as a tool for interacting minds. Mind & Language, 25, 329.
Vaid J., Rhodes R., Tosun S., & Eslami Z. (2011). Script directionality affects depiction of depth in representational drawings. Social Psychology, 42, 241248.
Wallentin M., Weed E., Østergaard L., Mouridsen K., & Roepstorff A. (2008). Accessing the mental space – spatial working memory processes for language and vision overlap in precuneus. Human Brain Mapping, 29, 524532.
Zwaan R. A., & Pecher D. (2012). Revisiting mental simulation in language comprehension: six replication attempts. PLoS ONE, 7, e51382.
Zwaan R. A., Stanfield R. A., & Yaxley R. H. (2002). Language comprehenders mentally represent the shapes of objects. Psychological Science, 13, 168171.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1866-9808
  • EISSN: 1866-9859
  • URL: /core/journals/language-and-cognition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Stroustrup and Wallentin supplementary material
Stroustrup and Wallentin supplementary material 1

 PDF (221 KB)
221 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 36 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 401 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 28th November 2017 - 23rd January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.