Effect of Ambiguity and Lexical Availability on Syntactic and Lexical Production

Victor S. Ferreira, Gary S. Dell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Speakers only sometimes include the that in sentence complement structures like The coach knew (that) you missed practice. Six experiments tested the predictions concerning optional word mention of two general approaches to language production. One approach claims that language production processes choose syntactic structures that ease the task of creating sentences, so that words are spoken opportunistically, as they are selected for production. The second approach claims that a syntactic structure is chosen that is easiest to comprehend, so that optional words like that are used to avoid temporarily ambiguous, difficult-to-comprehend sentences. In all experiments, speakers did not consistently include optional words to circumvent a temporary ambiguity, but they did omit optional words (the complementizer that) when subsequent material was either repeated (within a sentence) or prompted with a recall cue. The results suggest that speakers choose syntactic structures to permit early mention of available material and not to circumvent disruptive temporary ambiguities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)296-340
Number of pages45
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2000

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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