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date: 22 November 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter on lexical ambiguity examines how words with multiple meanings are learned, stored, and processed. Lexical ambiguity is ubiquitous: over 80% of common English words have more than one dictionary entry, with some words having very many different definitions. Being able to learn and process ambiguous words is therefore critical for skilled language comprehension. This chapter reviews experiments that indicate that ambiguous words can be relatively challenging to learn, and that the competition between alternative word meanings can delay processing of these words relative to unambiguous words. However, when ambiguous words occur within sentences readers/listeners can rapidly use contextual cues to select the most likely meaning, and if necessary reinterpret the sentence in the light of subsequent information. The chapter also reviews evidence from brain imaging studies that reveals the network of temporal and frontal brain regions that are known to be important for representing and processing ambiguous words.

Keywords: lexical ambiguity, semantic ambiguity, word meanings, comprehension, word learning

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