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The relationship between sentence comprehension and lexical-semantic retuning

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Gilbert, Rebecca A 
Davis, Matthew H 
Gaskell, M Gareth 
Rodd, Jennifer M 


A single encounter with an ambiguous word (e.g. bark, ball) in the context of a less-frequent meaning (e.g. “Sally worried about how crowded the ball would be.”) can shift the later interpretation of the word toward the same subordinate meaning. This lexical-semantic retuning functions to improve future comprehension of ambiguous words. The present paper investigates the relationship between this form of learning and the specific processes that occur during sentence comprehension. One possibility is that lexical-semantic retuning occurs immediately upon hearing the ambiguous word, during initial meaning activation and selection, so priming should be strongest when the disambiguating context is provided before the ambiguous word (prior disambiguation). Alternatively, priming may relate to the degree of reinterpretation needed, which would predict maximal learning when the word is initially misunderstood because the critical context is given after the word (subsequent disambiguation, e.g. “Sally worried that the ball would be too crowded.”). In four experiments, adults listened to prior and subsequent disambiguation sentences, and were later tested on their interpretations of primed and unprimed ambiguous words. The results showed that lexical-semantic retuning can occur for both sentence types. Importantly, however, the emergence of priming for subsequent disambiguation sentences was sensitive to the prime conditions: when the task could potentially be performed without needing to re-analyse the ambiguity, then no significant priming was observed. This is consistent with the ‘good enough’ view of language processing which states that representations can remain as (im)precise as mandated by the situation, and that lexical-semantic retuning operates on the output of good-enough interpretation. More generally, our findings suggest that lexical-semantic retuning is driven by participants’ final interpretation of the word meanings during the prime encounter, regardless of initial meaning activation or misinterpretation.



Language comprehension, Lexical ambiguity, Semantic ambiguity, Priming, Learning, Sentence processing

Journal Title

Journal of Memory and Language

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Elsevier BV
MRC (unknown)
Medical Research Council (MC_UU_00005/5)