Ambiguity's aftermath: How age differences in resolving lexical ambiguity affect subsequent comprehension

Chia lin Lee, Kara D. Federmeier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When ambiguity resolution is difficult, younger adults recruit selection-related neural resources that older adults do not. To elucidate the nature of those resources and the consequences of their recruitment for subsequent comprehension, we embedded noun/verb homographs and matched unambiguous words in syntactically well-specified but semantically neutral sentences. Target words were followed by a prepositional phrase whose head noun was plausible for only one meaning of the homograph. Replicating past findings, younger but not older adults elicited sustained frontal negativity to homographs compared to unambiguous words. On the subsequent head nouns, younger adults showed plausibility effects in all conditions, attesting to successful meaning selection through suppression. In contrast, older adults showed smaller plausibility effects following ambiguous words and failed to show plausibility effects when the context picked out the homograph's non-dominant meaning (i.e., they did not suppress the contextually-irrelevant dominant meaning). Meaning suppression processes, reflected in the frontal negativity, thus become less available with age, with consequences for subsequent comprehension.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)869-879
Number of pages11
Issue number5
StatePublished - Apr 2012


  • Aging
  • ERP
  • Frontal negativity
  • Inhibition
  • Lexical ambiguity resolution
  • N400

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Ambiguity's aftermath: How age differences in resolving lexical ambiguity affect subsequent comprehension'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this