To mind the mind: An event-related potential study of word class and semantic ambiguity

Chia lin Lee, Kara D. Federmeier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The goal of this study was to jointly examine the effects of word class, word class ambiguity, and semantic ambiguity on the brain response to words in syntactically specified contexts. Four types of words were used: (1) word class ambiguous words with a high degree of semantic ambiguity (e.g., 'duck'); (2) word class ambiguous words with little or no semantic ambiguity (e.g., 'vote'); (3) word class unambiguous nouns (e.g., 'sofa'); and (4) word class unambiguous verbs (e.g., 'eat'). These words were embedded in minimal phrases that explicitly specified their word class: "the" for nouns (and ambiguous words used as nouns) and "to" for verbs (and ambiguous words used as verbs). Our results replicate the basic word class effects found in prior work (Federmeier, K.D., Segal, J.B., Lombrozo, T., Kutas, M., 2000. Brain responses to nouns, verbs and class ambiguous words in context. Brain, 123 (12), 2552-2566), including an enhanced N400 (250-450 ms) to nouns compared with verbs and an enhanced frontal positivity (300-700 ms) to unambiguous verbs in relation to unambiguous nouns. A sustained frontal negativity (250-900 ms) that was previously linked to word class ambiguity also appeared in this study but was specific to word class ambiguous items that also had a high level of semantic ambiguity; word class ambiguous items without semantic ambiguity, in contrast, were more positive than class unambiguous words in the early part of this time window (250-500 ms). Thus, this frontal negative effect seems to be driven by the need to resolve the semantic ambiguity that is sometimes associated with different grammatical uses of a word class ambiguous homograph rather than by the class ambiguity per se.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-202
Number of pages12
JournalBrain Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 7 2006


  • ERP
  • Language
  • Noun-verb homonymy
  • Word class
  • Word class ambiguity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


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