Memory & Cognition

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 201–216

Underspecification of syntactic ambiguities: Evidence from self-paced reading

  • Benjamin Swets
  • Timothy Desmet
  • Charles Clifton
  • Fernanda Ferreira

DOI: 10.3758/MC.36.1.201

Cite this article as:
Swets, B., Desmet, T., Clifton, C. et al. Memory & Cognition (2008) 36: 201. doi:10.3758/MC.36.1.201


Syntactically ambiguous sentences are sometimes read faster than disambiguated strings. Models of parsing have explained this tendency by appealing either to a race in the construction of alternative structures or to reanalysis. However, it is also possible that readers of ambiguous sentences save time by strategically underspecifying interpretations of ambiguous attachments. In a self-paced reading study, participants viewed sentences with relative clauses that could attach to one of two sites. Type of question was also manipulated between participants in order to test whether goals can influence reading/parsing strategies. The experiment revealed an ambiguity advantage in reading times, but only when participants expected superficial comprehension questions. When participants expected queries about relative clause interpretation, disambiguating regions were inspected with more care, and the ambiguity advantage was attenuated. However, even when participants expected relative clause queries, question-answering times suggested underspecified representations of ambiguous relative clause attachments. The results support the construal and “good-enough” models of parsing.

Download to read the full article text

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin Swets
    • 1
  • Timothy Desmet
    • 2
  • Charles Clifton
    • 3
  • Fernanda Ferreira
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyState University of New YorkStony Brook
  2. 2.Ghent UniversityGhentBelgium
  3. 3.University of MassachusettsAmherstMassachusetts
  4. 4.University of EdinburghEdinburghScotland