Wave-ering: An ERP study of syntactic and semantic context effects on ambiguity resolution for noun/verb homographs

Chia lin Lee, Kara D. Federmeier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Two event-related potential experiments investigated the effects of syntactic and semantic context information on the processing of noun/verb (NV) homographs (e.g., park). Experiment 1 embedded NV-homographs and matched unambiguous words in contexts that provided only syntactic cues or both syntactic and semantic constraints. Replicating prior work, when only syntactic information was available NV-homographs elicited sustained frontal negativity relative to unambiguous words. Semantic constraints eliminated this frontal ambiguity effect. Semantic constraints also reduced N400 amplitudes, but less so for homographs than unambiguous words. Experiment 2 showed that this reduced N400 facilitation was limited to cases in which the semantic context picks out a non-dominant meaning, likely reflecting the semantic mismatch between the context and residual, automatic activation of the contextually-inappropriate dominant sense. Overall, the findings suggest that ambiguity resolution in context involves the interplay between multiple neural networks, some involving more automatic semantic processing mechanisms and others involving top-down control mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)538-555
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2009


  • ERP
  • Frontal negativity
  • Lexical ambiguity resolution
  • N400
  • NV-homographs
  • Syntactic context

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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