Vol. 18, No. 2
Avoid Ambiguity! (If You Can)
Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA
When people create linguistic expressions, they should avoid ambiguity. Current evidence on this is mixed. In two experiments, subjects read sentences including passive relative clauses, which can be written in full or reduced form (The team (that was) defeated in the Super Bowl vowed revenge); when reduced (without the that was), ambiguity is a threat. Subjects were told about the optional material, and instructed to include or omit it to make the sentence “easier to understand.” One experiment manipulated past participle ambiguity (The team defeated... is ambiguous, whereas The team beaten... is not). Another experiment also manipulated plausibility (The winning team defeated... is more ambiguous relative to The losing team defeated...). Past-participle ambiguity failed to influence whether subjects wrote full embedded clauses, but plausibility tended to. A third experiment verified that the ambiguous fragments are consistent with main-verb interpretations. Thus, when instructed to edit sentences to make them easy to understand, subjects avoid ambiguity not based on morphological ambiguity, but (perhaps) only as conditioned upon pragmatic, real-world knowledge.highlight certain common, but problematic, methodological practices in patient research, and alternative approaches are suggested.