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The effects of meaning dominance and meaning relatedness on ambiguity resolution: Idioms and ambiguous words

Milburn, Evelyn (2018) The effects of meaning dominance and meaning relatedness on ambiguity resolution: Idioms and ambiguous words. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Figurative language is language in which combining the meanings of the individual words in an expression leads to a different meaning than the speaker intends (Glucksberg, 1991), resulting in potential ambiguity between meanings. In this dissertation, we tested the predictions of a sentence processing framework in which literal and figurative language are not truly distinct. To do this, we examined the effects of two constructs—meaning dominance and meaning relatedness—on comprehension of idioms and ambiguous words. Processing similarities between these two types of ambiguous unit would indicate that ambiguities are resolved using the same processes during language comprehension, and therefore that literal and figurative language are broadly similar rather than being categorically distinct. In two parallel sub-experiments, Experiment 1 compared facilitation for dominant and subordinate meanings of ambiguous units in a primed lexical decision task. For ambiguous words, participants showed greater facilitation when one meaning was strongly dominant. For idioms, participants showed greater facilitation for idioms compared to control phrases, and lowest accuracy when responding to literal target words following highly figuratively-dominant idioms. Experiment 2 used eyetracking during reading to examine how biasing context affected idiom meaning activation, as well as how idiom meanings were integrated into a larger text. Participants read the idioms slowest when both figurative dominance and meaning relatedness were high, and fastest when meaning relatedness was high and figurative dominance was low, replicating results for ambiguous word reading found by Foraker and Murphy (2012). This is suggestive evidence for a language comprehension system that resolves ambiguities similarly regardless of grain size or literality. We also found facilitative effects of meaning relatedness in idiom reading parallel to the polysemy advantage in ambiguous word research, providing evidence that meaning relatedness is universal to many types of ambiguity resolution. The present study provides preliminary evidence that idioms and ambiguous words are treated similarly during ambiguity resolution. These results have implications for our understanding of idiom comprehension, and suggest valuable new avenues for future research.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Milburn, Evelyneam115@pitt.edueam115
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairWarren, Tessatessa@pitt.edutessa
Committee MemberDickey, Michael Walshmdickey@pitt.edumdickey
Committee MemberTokowicz, Natashatokowicz@pitt.edutokowicz
Committee MemberPerfetti, Charlesperfetti@pitt.eduperfetti
Date: 31 January 2018
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 21 November 2017
Approval Date: 31 January 2018
Submission Date: 29 September 2017
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 154
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Psychology
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: meaning dominance, meaning relatedness, idioms, ambiguity, ambiguous words
Date Deposited: 31 Jan 2018 22:27
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2018 22:27


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