LINGUIST List 24.2359

Fri Jun 07 2013

Diss: Semantics, Cognitive Science, Psycholing: Gaylord: ''The 'Resolution' of Verb Meaning in Context''

Editor for this issue: Xiyan Wang <>

Date: 06-Jun-2013
From: Nicholas Gaylord <>
Subject: The ''Resolution'' of Verb Meaning in Context
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Institution: University of Texas at Austin Program: Department of Linguistics Dissertation Status: Completed Degree Date: 2013

Author: Nicholas Gaylord

Dissertation Title: The "Resolution" of Verb Meaning in Context

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science                             Psycholinguistics                             Semantics
Dissertation Director:
Colin Bannard Katrin Erk
Dissertation Abstract:

It is well-known that the meaning of a word often changes depending on the
context in which it is used. However, there is still much to be learned
about the nature of our lexical knowledge, as well as how we make use of
that knowledge in the course of language comprehension. I report on a
series of three experiments that explore these issues.

I begin with the question of how precise our perceptions of word meaning in
context really are. In Experiment 1, I present a Magnitude Estimation study
in which I obtain judgments of meaning-in-context similarity over pairs of
intransitive verb occurrences, such as 'The kid runs' / 'The cat runs',
or 'The cat runs' / 'The lane runs.' I find that participants supply a
large range of very specific similarity judgments, that judgments are quite
consistent across participants, and that these judgments can be reasonably
well predicted. However, I also find that while some participants supply a
great variety of ratings, many participants supply only a few unique values
during the task. This suggests that some individuals are making more
fine-grained judgments than others.

In Experiment 2, I present a Speed-Accuracy Tradeoff study that explores
the earliest stages of meaning-in-context resolution to better understand
the dynamics of the comprehension process itself. In particular, I focus on
the timecourse of meaning resolution and the question of whether verbs
carry context-independent default interpretations that are activated prior
to semantic integration. I find, consistent with what has previously been
shown for nouns, that verbs do in fact carry such a default meaning, as can
be seen in early false alarms to stimuli such as 'The dawn broke –
Something shattered.' These default meanings appear to reflect the most
frequent interpretation of the verb.

I hypothesize that these default meanings support a shallow semantic
processing strategy. Recently, a growing body of work has begun to
demonstrate that our language comprehension is often less than exhaustive
and maximally accurate – people often vary the depth of their processing.
In Experiment 3, I explore changes in depth of semantic processing by
making an explicit connection to research on human decision making,
particularly as regards questions of strategy selection and effort-accuracy
tradeoffs. I present a semantic judgment task similar to that used in
Experiment 2, but incorporating design principles common in studies on
decision making, such as response-contingent financial payoffs and
trial-by-trial feedback on response accuracy. I show that participants’
preferences for deep and shallow semantic processing strategies are
predictably influenced by factors known to affect decision making in other
non-linguistic domains. In lower-risk situations, participants are more
likely to accept default meanings even when they are not contextually
supported, such as responding “True” to stimuli such as 'The dawn broke –
Something shattered', even without the presence of time pressure.

This thesis makes two primary contributions to the literature. First, I
present evidence that our knowledge of verb meanings is at least
two-layered – we have access to a very information-rich base of event
knowledge, but we also have a more schematic level of representation that
is easier to access. Second, I show that these different sources of
information enable different semantic processing strategies, and that
moreover the choice between these strategies is dependent upon situational

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