In the neurobiology of syntax, a methodological challenge is to vary syntax while holding semantics constant. Changes in syntactic structure usually correlate with changes in meaning. We approached this challenge from a new angle. We deployed word lists—typically, the unstructured control in studies of syntax—as both test and control stimuli. Three-noun lists (“lamps, dolls, guitars”) were embedded in sentences (“The eccentric man hoarded lamps, dolls, guitars…”) and in longer lists (“forks, pen, toilet, rodeo, lamps, dolls, guitars…”). This allowed us to minimize contributions from lexical semantics and local phrasal combinatorics: the same words occurred in both conditions, and in neither case did the list items locally compose into phrases (e.g., “lamps” and “dolls” do not form a phrase). Crucially, the list partakes in a syntactic tree in one case but not the other. Lists-in-sentences increased source-localized MEG activity at ∼250–300 ms from each of the list item onsets in the left inferior frontal cortex, at ∼300–350 ms in the left anterior temporal lobe and, most reliably, at ∼330–400 ms in left posterior temporal cortex. In contrast, the main effects of semantic association strength, which we also varied, localized in the left temporoparietal cortex, with high associations increasing activity at ∼400 ms. This dissociation offers a novel characterization of the structure versus word meaning contrast in the brain: the frontotemporal network that is familiar from studies of sentence processing can be driven by the sheer presence of global sentence structure, while associative semantics has a more posterior neural signature.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Human languages all have a syntax, which both enables the infinitude of linguistic creativity and determines what is grammatical in a language. The neurobiology of syntactic processing has, however, been challenging to characterize despite decades of study. One reason is pure manipulations of syntax are difficult to design. The approach here offers a novel control of two variables that are notoriously hard to keep constant when syntax is manipulated: word meaning and phrasal combinatorics. The same noun lists occurred inside longer lists and sentences, while semantic associations also varied. Our MEG results show that classic frontotemporal language regions can be driven by sentence structure even when local semantic contributions are absent. In contrast, the left temporoparietal junction tracks associative relationships.