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Differential effects of ambiguity type for word recognition


It is well known that semantic characteristics of words have differential effects on word recognition. Recently, attention has been drawn to the effects of the type of ambiguity, i.e. whether a word has different meanings that correspond to different entries in the dictionary and have different derivations (homonymy), or related senses that are all enlisted under the same entry in the dictionary (polysemy). The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of ambiguity type on visual single-word recognition in greek.

Materials and methods

Twenty-five subjects participated in a single-word visual lexical decision task. Stimulus items were 37 homonyms, 37 polysemous words and 36 unambiguous words, along with 110 pseudowords. The three groups of words were matched for printed frequency, length and lexical neighbourhood size.


Response time values were calculated separately across items and participants. Both analyses revealed a significant effect of word group; subjects responded faster to homonymous words than to unambiguous words, with reaction times for homonyms falling in between the two. For the subset of ambiguous words, there was a significant main effect for number of meanings and number of senses. However, these two effects were in the opposite direction: multiple senses elicited faster reaction times, whereas multiple meanings seemed to slow down responses.


Our results suggest an advantage of multiple related senses for visual word recognition, alongside a relative disadvantage for words with multiple meanings. This finding has interesting implications for models of lexical representation and access mechanisms.

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Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Andreou, C., Tsapkini, K., Bozikas, V. et al. Differential effects of ambiguity type for word recognition. Ann Gen Psychiatry 5 (Suppl 1), S73 (2006).

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