Chiara Finocchiaro


People normally know the words that are used in their verbal interactions. And in almost any verbal interaction there are words labelled as nouns or verbs. Indeed, the processing of grammatical categories is one of the core topics in language research. Thus, the question is: What does “knowing a verb” mean? More generally, what type of knowledge is associated with a given grammatical category? How does this knowledge become available in the course of language use?

In order to answer these questions, we start from theoretical linguistics and psychological models of language production to make hypotheses on the functional aspects of the processing of grammatical categories. Hypotheses are tested with behavioral studies on unimpaired as well as on brain-damaged individuals. Functional MRI, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), EEG and other physiological measures are also used to get insights on the possible neural correlates of grammatical categories.

Research directions

Thematic roles and passive diathesis

The understanding of “Who does what to whom” is essential to the comprehension of virtually any sentence and is related to the role assumed by a given participant in a given sentence. The interpretation of thematic roles is systematically affected by the verb diathesis. That is, when the verb is in the active diathesis, the first argument is normally the agent. However, when the same sentence is in its passive version the first argument is normally the theme.

The current research project covers a number of questions that span from the neural correlates of thematic role assignment to the relations among passive diathesis, thematic roles and working memory load. TMS as well as behavioral experiments on unimpaired and aphasic participants have been used to address some specific issues and others are to be planned.

Noun-Verb homonyms and the Noun-Verb continuum

Despite the fact that Grammar books classify a word as a noun or a verb, being a noun/verb does not seem to be an “all-or-none” matter. That is, a word may be “more noun” or “more verb” based on both semantic and syntactic reasons. In the current research project we aim at exploring what is in between the extreme poles of the noun-verb continuum and whether this continuum has a cognitive reliability by using behavioral measures. A MEG study is also on the way. 

Organization of the verbal paradigm

Verb forms are organized in paradigms. There are reasons to believe that, due to radically different factors such as frequency of occurrence and relevance to predict other forms of the paradigm, not all forms have the same salience. In the current project we explore how different factors may contribute to a supposed privileged role of some verb forms in lexical access by using behavioral measures. At the moment, the project focuses on two languages – Italian and Bulgarian, with different verbal systems.

Internal collaborations

Gabriele Miceli, Full Professor
Francesca Postiglione, ex post-doc

External collaborations

Pier Marco Bertinetto, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
Luigi Cattaneo, University of Verona
Giuseppe Giglia, University of Palermo
Stela Manova, University of Wien
Eduardo Navarrete, University of Padova
Andrew Nevins, University College of London

Selected publications

  • Benetello, A., Finocchiaro, C., Capasso, R., Capitani, E., Laiacona, M., Magon, S., Miceli, G.(2016). The dissociability of lexical retrieval and morphosyntactic processes for nouns and verbs: A functional and anatomoclinical study. Brain and Language, 159, 11-22. 
  • Finocchiaro, C., Capasso, R., Cattaneo, L., Zuanazzi, A., Miceli, G. (2015). Thematic role assignment in the posterior parietal cortex: a TMS study". Neuropsychologia, 77, 223-232. 
  • Finocchiaro, C., Navarrete, E. (2013). About the locus of the distractor frequency effect: evidence from the production of clitic pronouns. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25, 861-872.
  • Finocchiaro, C. (2013). Facilitation effects of gender-congruency in the production of Italian clitic pronouns. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25, 24-29. 
  • Finocchiaro, C., Alario, F.-X., Schiller, N.O., Costa, A., Miozzo, M., Caramazza, A. (2011). Gender congruency goes Europe: a cross-linguistic study of the gender congruency effect in several Romance and Germanic languages. Rivista di Linguistica, 23, 161-198.
  • Finocchiaro, C., Basso, G., Giovenzana, A., Caramazza, A. (2010). Morphological complexity reveals verb-specific prefrontal engagement. Journal of Neuroliguistics, 23, 553-563. 
  • Finocchiaro, C., Fierro, B., Brighina, F., Giglia, G., Francolini, M., Caramazza, A. (2008). When nominal features are marked on verbs: a transcranial magnetic stimulation study. Brain and Language, 104, 113-121.
  • Finocchiaro, C., Maimone, M., Brighina, F., Piccoli, T., Giglia, G., Fierro, B. (2006). A case study of primary progressive aphasia: improvement on verbs after rTMS treatment. Neurocase, 12,   317-321.
  • Finocchiaro, C., Caramazza, A. (2006). The production of pronominal clitics: implications for theories of lexical access. Language and Cognitive Processes, 21, 141-180.
  • Oliveri, M., Finocchiaro, C., Shapiro, K., Gangitano, M., Caramazza, A., Pascual-Leone, A. (2004). All talk and no action: a TMS study of motor cortex activation during action word production. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 374-381.