ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship: The psychological validity of non-adjacent collocations: Evidence from event-related brain potentials

This ESRC-funded project builds on previous CASS research into the processing of collocational and non-collocational sequences. The aim of this prior research was to find out whether or not there is a difference in the way that the brain processes collocational bigrams (i.e. pairs of words where the second word is highly likely to follow the first word, such as clinical trials) and matched non-collocational bigrams (i.e. pairs of words where the second word is not likely to follow the first word, such as clinical devices). This was studied first via a self-paced reading experiment, where reading speed is assumed to reflect cognitive load, and then via a series of four EEG (electroencephalography) experiments, where scalp electrodes record a participants’ brain activity during a reading task. More specifically, the EEG experiments used the ERP (event-related potential) technique of analysing brainwave data, where the brainwaves are time-locked to particular stimuli (in this case, the second word of collocational and non-collocational bigrams).

The results of these experiments reveal that both native and non-native speakers of English read collocational bigrams more quickly than matched non-collocational bigrams, and that there is a neurophysiological difference in the way that the brain processes these two different types of word pairs. This makes sense, as reading a non-collocational bigram violates the expectation of which word is likely to come next that was set up by the first word in the pair. The results also show that, when non-native speakers of English read the non-collocational bigrams, their brain seems to work even harder than that of the native speakers of English exposed to the same stimuli. This can be explained by considering the amount of exposure that both participant groups have had to the English language. Native speakers are likely to have encountered the non-collocational word pairs before, even though they are highly infrequent, while non-native speakers have probably never encountered these word pairs before. The collocational violation is therefore likely to be more extreme from the perspective of a non-native speaker.

This initial phase of research focused on word pairs rather than longer sequences of words in order to reduce the number of factors that might influence how the word sequences were processed, making it feasible to conduct controlled experiments. However, this is actually a very narrow way of conceptualizing the notion of collocation; in practice, words are considered to form collocations when they occur in one another’s vicinity even if there are several intervening words, and even if the words do not always occur in the same order. This ESRC-funded project therefore builds on the initial phase of research by focusing on non-adjacent collocations. Specifically, the project aims to find out whether or not there is a difference in the way that the brain processes collocations with one, two, or three intervening words (e.g. take something seriously; take the plan seriously; take the new plan seriously), compared to matched non-collocations of the same length (e.g. take something happily; take the plan happily; take the new plan happily). These results will be used to inform the design of research questions and methods for future work engaging with yet more varied types of collocational pattern.

Contact: Jennifer Hughes (