ABSTRACT. This paper investigates how linguistic expressions of time, in particular temporal adverbs and verb tense morphemes, are used to establish temporal reference in the brain. First, a semantic analysis of tense and temporal adverbs is outlined. It is proposed that computing temporal reference amounts to solving a constraint satisfaction problem. Further, the results of an ERP study are presented which suggest that violations of verb tense (‘Last Sunday Vincent paints the window frames of his country house.’) result in larger left-anterior negative (LAN) effects, emerging around 200 ms after verb onset. Finally, the semantic analysis is combined with a computational model of parsing to provide a functional account of the ERP data. Reference to time is ubiquitous in natural language, to the point that nearly every assertion involves the location of some event within a temporal coordinate system. Much attention has been paid to the linguistic structures used to encode temporal information, which range from prepositional phrases (‘before the dawn’) to verb suffixes (‘-ed ’ in the English regular simple past), to expressions borrowed from technical languages, for instance mathematics (‘10 −35 seconds into the expansion phase’). Linguists have provided precise accounts of the functioning of these devices, often using the formal tools made available by modern logic
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