Cross-age comparisons reveal multiple strategies for lexical ambiguity resolution during natural reading

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Eye tracking was used to investigate how younger and older (60 or more years) adults use syntactic and semantic information to disambiguate noun/verb (NV) homographs (e.g., park). In event-related potential (ERP) work using the same materials, Lee and Federmeier (2009, 2011) found that young adults elicited a sustained frontal negativity to NV homographs when only syntactic cues were available (i.e., in syntactic prose); this effect was eliminated by semantic constraints. The negativity was only present in older adults with high verbal fluency. The current study shows parallel findings: Young adults exhibit inflated first fixation durations to NV homographs in syntactic prose, but not semantically congruent sentences. This effect is absent in older adults as a group. Verbal fluency modulates the effect in both age groups: High fluency is associated with larger first fixation effects in syntactic prose. Older, but not younger, adults also show significantly increased rereading of the NV homographs in syntactic prose. Verbal fluency modulates this effect as well: High fluency is associated with a reduced tendency to reread, regardless of age. This relationship suggests a trade-off between initial and downstream processing costs for ambiguity during natural reading. Together the eye-tracking and ERP data suggest that effortful meaning selection recruits mechanisms important for suppressing contextually inappropriate meanings, which also slow eye movements. Efficacy of frontotemporal circuitry, as captured by verbal fluency, predicts the success of engaging these mechanisms in both young and older adults. Failure to recruit these processes requires compensatory rereading or leads to comprehension failures (Lee & Federmeier, 2012).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1823-1841
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2013


  • Aging
  • ERPs
  • Eye tracking
  • Individual differences
  • Noun/verb homographs

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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