Classifiers are essential elements between numerals and nouns in Mandarin (e.g. “one-touCL-elephant”), but whether they serve a semantic or functional/morphosyntactic role in relation to the accompanying noun has been heatedly debated in linguistics. Previous ERP research consistently supported the semantic view with findings of N400; however, the apparent meaning clash in mismatched classifier-noun pairing in these studies might render morphosyntactic processing undetected. We created two violation conditions to explore classifier-noun agreement: incongruent GE-noun combinations (replacing a specific classifier with the meaning-devoid general classifier, GE) and outright grammatical mistakes (missing a required classifier). With congruent combinations as the baseline, GE-noun combinations elicited a negativity effect strikingly similar to that induced by the grammatical violation condition in phrases (Experiment 1) and sentences (Experiment 2), indicating the involvement of morphosyntactic processing in classifier-noun agreement. The finding suggests that there is a middle ground for the linguistic debate over the nature of classifier selection in relation to nouns.
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