Retrieval cues and syntactic ambiguity resolution: speed-accuracy tradeoff evidence

Andrea E. Martin, Brian McElree

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Language comprehension involves coping with ambiguity and recovering from misanalysis. Syntactic ambiguity resolution is associated with increased reading times, a classic finding that has shaped theories of sentence processing. However, reaction times conflate the time it takes a process to complete with the quality of the behavior-related information available to the system. We therefore used the speed-accuracy tradeoff procedure (SAT) to derive orthogonal estimates of processing time and interpretation accuracy, and tested whether stronger retrieval cues (via semantic relatedness: neighed->horse vs. fell->horse) aid interpretation during recovery. On average, ambiguous sentences took 250ms longer (SAT rate) to interpret than unambiguous controls, demonstrating veridical differences in processing time. Retrieval cues more strongly related to the true subject always increased accuracy, regardless of ambiguity. These findings are consistent with a language processing architecture where cue-driven operations give rise to interpretation, and wherein diagnostic cues aid retrieval, regardless of parsing difficulty or structural uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)769-783
Number of pages15
JournalLanguage, Cognition and Neuroscience
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jul 3 2018


  • Sentence processing
  • cue-based retrieval
  • reanalysis
  • retrieval interference
  • speed-accuracy tradeoff

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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