Polysemy in sentence comprehension: Effects of meaning dominance

Stephani Foraker, Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Words like church are polysemous, having two related senses (a building and an organization). Three experiments investigated how polysemous senses are represented and processed during sentence comprehension. On one view, readers retrieve an underspecified, core meaning, which is later specified more fully with contextual information. On another view, readers retrieve one or more specific senses. In a reading task, context that was neutral or biased towards a particular sense preceded a polysemous word. Disambiguating material consistent with only one sense followed, in a second sentence (Experiment 1) or the same sentence (Experiments 2 and 3). Reading the disambiguating material was faster when it was consistent with that context, and dominant senses were committed to more strongly than subordinate senses. Critically, following neutral context, the continuation was read more quickly when it selected the dominant sense, and the degree of sense dominance partially explained the reading time advantage. Similarity of the senses also affected reading times. Across experiments, we found that sense selection may not be completed immediately following a polysemous word but is completed at a sentence boundary. Overall, the results suggest that readers select an individual sense when reading a polysemous word, rather than a core meaning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)407-425
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 2012


  • Ambiguity
  • Eye movements
  • Lexical semantics
  • Polysemy
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Underspecified representation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


Dive into the research topics of 'Polysemy in sentence comprehension: Effects of meaning dominance'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this