Cursed Concepts: New insights on combinatorial processing from ERP correlates of swearing in context

Stanley A. Donahoo, Valeria Pfeifer, Vicky Tzuyin Lai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Expressives (damn) convey speaker attitude and when used in context (Tom lost the damn dog) can be flexibly applied locally to the noun (dog) or globally to the whole sentence (the situation). We used ERPs to explore brain responses to expressives in sentences. Participants read expressive, descriptive, and pseudoword adjectives followed by nouns in sentences (The damn/black/flerg dog peed on the couch). At the adjective late-positivity-component (LPC), expressives and descriptives showed no difference, suggesting reduced social threat and that readers employ a ‘wait-and-see’ strategy to interpret expressives. Nouns preceded by expressives elicited a larger frontal P200, as well as reduced N400 and LPC than nouns preceded by descriptives. We associated the frontal P200 with emotional salience, the frontal N400 with mental imagery, and the LPC with cognitive load for combinatorics. We suggest that expressive adjectives are not bound to conceptual integration and conclude that parsers wait-and-see what is being damned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105079
JournalBrain and Language
StatePublished - Mar 2022


  • Combinatorial processing
  • ERP
  • Emotion
  • LPC
  • Language
  • N400
  • P200
  • Social
  • Swearing
  • Taboo

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Speech and Hearing


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