Dissociation between Syntactic and Semantic Processing during Idiom Comprehension

Robert R. Peterson, Gary S. Dell, Curt Burgess, Kathleen M. Eberhard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Syntactic and semantic processing of literal and idiomatic phrases were investigated with a priming procedure. In 3 experiments, participants named targets that were syntactically appropriate or inappropriate completions for semantically unrelated sentence contexts. Sentences ended with incomplete idioms (kick the . . .) and were biased for either a literal (ball) or an idiomatic (bucket) completion. Syntactically appropriate targets were named more quickly than inappropriate ones for both contextual biases, suggesting that syntactic analysis occurs for idioms. In a final experiment, targets were either concrete (expected) or abstract (unexpected) nouns. For literal sentences, the abstract targets were named more slowly than the concrete targets. In contrast, there was no concreteness effect for idiomatic sentences, suggesting that the literal meaning of the idiom is not processed. Overall, the results provide evidence for dissociation between syntactic and semantic processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1223-1237
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


Dive into the research topics of 'Dissociation between Syntactic and Semantic Processing during Idiom Comprehension'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this