The Representation of Polysemous Words

Devorah E. Klein, Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Words that have a number of related senses are polysemous. For example, paper refers to both a substance and a publication printed on that substance. Five experiments investigated whether different senses are represented distinctly in the lexicon or if there is a common, core meaning. In all experiments, a polysemous word was used twice, in phrases that selected the same or different senses. Experiment 1 showed that sense consistency aided memory for the polysemous word. Experiment 2 extended this result to a timed sensicality judgment task. Experiment 3 demonstrated that the effects for polysemous words were very similar to those for homonyms. Experiment 4 ruled out the possibility of modifier-modifier priming. Experiment 5 showed that sense consistency facilitates comprehension relative to a neutral baseline, while sense inconsistency inhibits comprehension. These experiments provide evidence that polysemous words have separate representations for each sense and that any core meaning is minimal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)259-282
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2001


  • Ambiguity
  • Lexical semantics
  • Polysemy
  • Psycholinguistics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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