Hitting the Right Pitch: A Meta-Analysis of Effect of Sentence Context on Lexical Access
Mark F. St.John
artment of Cognitive Science, UCS
I would like to thank Patricia Carpenter for her many suggestions made
throughout the course of this project. I would also like to thank Jay
McClelland and Norman Vinson for their useful suggestions and Ernest Mross
for the extra statistics he provided from his experiments.
Send correspondence to Mark St. John, Department of Cognitive Science,
UCSD, La Jolla, CA 92092-0515. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
A long standing controversy in Psycholinguistics is whether sentence
context affects the lexical access process. The revealing case is whether
sentence context affects the access of the meanings of ambiguous words.
According to one account, termed Independent Access, each meaning of an
ambiguous word is initially accessed and equally activated. After a short
delay, the preceding sentence context is applied to prune the inappropriate
meanings, leaving only the contextually appropriate meaning active. A number
of studies (Swinney, 1979; Onifer & Swinney, 1981; Seidenberg, Tanenhaus,
Leiman, & Bienkowski, 1982; Kintsch & Mross, 1985; Till, Mross, & Kintsch,
1988; Blutner & Sommer, 1988) have found this pattern of results.
These studies used a priming method to assess the relative degree of
activation of each meaning of the ambiguous words. The idea behind the
priming method is that subjects can respond to a target word more quickly if
the context preceding the target word "primes" that word. For example,
subjects can make a lexical decision (decide if a letter string spells a
word) to "nurse" more quickly if it is preceded by a semantically related
word like "doctor" (Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1976). The explanation of this
phenomenon is that the word "doctor" activates the concept of doctor which
in turn activates semantically related concepts like nurse. By observing
which target words are facilitated in the lexical decision task, the priming
method can be used to determine which concepts are activated when a word is
The priming method can be used to study the influence of sentence
context on lexical access. To determine if a sentence context can affect which
meanings are initially activated by an ambiguous word, a sentence containing
an ambiguous word is used as the context for the lexical decision. Once the
sentence is presented, subjects respond to a target word related to one of the
meanings of the ambiguous word. For example, the sentence might be, "The
janitor found several roaches, insects, and other bugs..." The target word
would be "ant" or "spy" or an unrelated control word. If both the contextually
appropriate and inappropriate meanings are facilitated, then the Independent
Access account holds. If, however, the contextually appropriate target word is
primed more than the inappropriate target word (in this case, "ant" rather than
"spy"), then the sentence context affected the processing of the ambiguous
The delay between the presentation of the ambiguous word and the
target can be varied to examine the time-course of processing of the
ambiguous word. With no delay, the meanings immediately activated by the
ambiguous word, and possibly the sentence, can be observed. With increasing
delays, the activations of meanings at later points in processing can be
observed (cf. Till, Mross, & Kintsch, 1988).
The studies mentioned above found that both meanings of the
ambiguous word were significantly primed when there was no delay between
the ambiguous word and the target word. The amount of priming for the
contextually appropriate and inappropriate meanings were not significantly
different. These studies, therefore, showed that the sentence context did not
affect the lexical access processing of the ambiguous word and supported the
Independent Access account.
This empirical result has important implications for theories of language
processing. If lexical access if unaffected by the sentence context, then
lexical access can be viewed as a processing "module" that works independently
for each word processed (Fodor, 1983; Kintsch & Mross, 1985). A higher level
sentence processing module would then take the set of meanings accessed
and prune the inappropriate ones.
An Alternative Account
A different account of sentence processing, however, predicts a
different pattern of results and is also supported by a number of studies
(Seidenberg, Tanenhaus, Leiman, & Bienkowski, 1982; Kintsch & Mross,
1985; Van Petten & Kutas, 1987). This account, termed Biased Activation,
predicts that the sentence context does prime the contextually appropriate
meaning of the ambiguous word. The ambiguous word itself works to activate
each meaning, but the sentence context works to activate the contextually
appropriate meaning more. As activation increases, the meanings compete,
and the edge given the appropriate meaning increases. The inappropriate
meanings are suppressed, and the appropriate meaning is fully activated.
Immediately after presenting the ambiguous word, therefore, all meanings are
active, but the contextually appropriate meaning is more active.
The Biased Activation account supports an interactive view of
sentence processing (McClelland, 1987). The effect of sentence context is
interpreted as demonstrating the interaction between lexical access and the
developing interpretation of the sentence. As the sentence is processed,
activation feeds back to the lexical access process. Concepts related to the
sentence interpretation, including the contextually appropriate meaning of the
ambiguous word, are primed. As processing continues, the feedback loop
between processing levels leads to the full activation of the appropriate
meaning and full suppression of the inappropriate meanings.
Figure 1 depicts the time-course of activation predicted by each view.
Note that both views make the same prediction for meaning activations after a
delay. It is in the immediate processing of the ambiguous word where the two
| |-------- approp.
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ACT| | |
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| | | inapprop.
| |-------- approp.
ACT| ||-- |
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| || | inapprop.
Figure 1. The time-course of activation of the contextually appropriate
and inappropriate meanings of an ambiguous word for Independent Access and
Biased Activation. The horizontal axis marks the onset of the ambiguous
word and the target. The theories' predictions only differ during the early
stages of processing in the relative levels of activation of each meaning.
Since both views are supported by empirical observation, how might
the controversy be resolved? Part of the answer lies in the design of the
studies. Each study used Independent Access as its null hypothesis. The null
hypothesis, then, predicts no difference between the contextually appropriate
and inappropriate meanings of an ambiguous word. Failure to achieve a
significant difference, then, was taken to affirm Independent Access. A null
result, however, is only weak evidence for a hypothesis. By looking across
studies, the evidence for each hypothesis can be assessed with greater
power. Meta-analysis (Wolf, 1986) provides a way of systematically
combining experimental results across different studies. Using a meta-
analysis, then, the effect of sentence context on lexical access can be
assessed more powerfully.
For a meta-analysis to be successful, the experiments included in the
analysis must be chosen carefully. The analysis presented here was limited to
priming studies and to studies that used semantic sentence contexts. While
methods than priming have been used (See Simpson, 1984, for a thorough
review), the priming method is most appropriate because it examines the
activations of meanings.
Experiments that examined the effect of syntactic context are excluded
from this meta-analysis for two reasons. First syntactic information is
sufficiently different from semantic information that combining the two might
obscure the observation of effects due to either. Secondly, meta-analysis
requires a reasonably large number of tests of a hypothesis, but few priming
studies have examined the effect of syntax.
An examination of the results of the chosen experiments reveals a
consistent effect of sentence context. In nearly every study, the contextually
appropriate meaning shows greater facilitation immediately following the
ambiguous word, though the effect is rarely significant. The meta-analysis
shows the effect to be significant across experiments thereby supporting the
Biased Activation account of lexical access. This result lends support to the
interactive account of language processing.
The psychological literature was searched for experimental tests of the
Independent Access hypothesis. Psychological Abstracts was searched for
relevant articles and dissertations, and Social Science Citations was searched
for references to two early studies: Swinney (1979) and Onifer and Swinney
(1981). Seven studies were found that used priming, semantic contexts, and
tested the hypothesis after no delay between the ambiguous word and the
target word (footnote 1). Among these studies, 18 separate tests of the
hypothesis were reported.
A common problem for meta-analysis is that studies that do not find
significant effects may not be published. Hence, a meta-analysis is typically
biased toward positive effects. This is known at the "file drawer problem".
However, this bias may not operate here. In the literature on lexical access,
Independent Access, the null hypothesis, has been a well established result,
so null effects can be reported with confidence as replications of this result. It is unlikely, therefore, that a nonsignificant effect would preclude
The procedure followed in each experiment was similar. In most
studies, the subject listened to sentences presented over a pair of head
phones. Following the ambiguous word, a visual lexical decision or naming
task would occur. For lexical decision, a word or nonword string was
displayed on a screen in front of the subject. The subject responded yes if
it were a word and no if it were not a word. For the naming task, a word was
displayed, and the subject read the word aloud. The time taken to respond in
either task was recorded.
In three experiments, however, both the sentences and the targets
were presented visually (Kintsch & Mross, 1985: experiments 2 and 3; Van
Petten & Kutas, 1987: experiment 1). Each sentence was displayed one word
at a time in the center of the screen. Following the ambiguous word, a target
was presented in the same location, flanked by rows of asterisks. The
presentation rate for the sentence contexts varied between experiments. The
effect of this procedural manipulation will be discussed later.
The materials were less similar across studies. The materials typically
consisted of a set of individual sentences ending in an ambiguous word and a
set of target words for each sentence: one related to each meaning of the
ambiguous word, and perhaps several control words. Other studies presented
the sentences in paragraph form, or embedded the ambiguous word in the
middle of a sentence.
The length and frequency of targets words, important factors
themselves in lexical access (Just & Carpenter, 1980), were controlled in
either of two ways. Some studies matched the length and frequency of the
words representing to each meaning of the ambiguous word. Analysis then
consisted of comparing the reaction time to the target for one meaning against
the time for the other meaning. Other studies developed a control word,
matched for length and frequency, for each target. Analysis then consisted of
finding the differences between target words and their controls, and then
comparing the amounts of facilitation for each target word.
Depending upon the study, the frequencies of the meanings of the
ambiguous words were either controlled to be the same or manipulated. If the
frequency were manipulated, the effect of sentence context, averaged over
frequency, is analyzed here.
A meta-analysis provides a way to combine the results of independent
tests of a hypothesis. One method, the Fisher Combined Test (Fisher, 1948),
combines the probability of the type I error (p-value) associated with each
experiment into a single chi-square statistic using the formula below.
X^2 = -2 * (sigma) log p (1)
i e i
The p-value for the chi-square statistic is then computed using 2n
degrees of freedom, where n is the number of tests of the hypothesis.
The nature of the Fisher Combined Test formula is to give
exponentially greater weight to more significant values of p (the smaller
the p, the exponentially larger is the negative of its logarithm). Each
experiment also contributes two degrees of freedom to the analysis. For
chi-square tests, the more degrees of freedom, the higher the chi-square value
must be to reach significance. Therefore, experiments with high significance
(small p-values) add more to the size of the estimated chi-square value than
they take away through the degrees of freedom they contribute.
Four experiments reported "F<1" rather than the exact F or p for the
critical comparison (though in fact each experiment demonstrates a small trend
toward greater activation of the contextually appropriate meaning). It is
important to include these studies since they test the hypothesis and show no
significant effect. These studies were assigned a very conservative p-value of
p = 0.9.
The effect size, d, describes the size of the experimental effect in
standard units. It can also be calculated for each experiment and averaged to
obtain a mean effect size. The effect size is calculated from the F or t
statistic. Unfortunately, this means that when the inappropriate meaning is
faster, d remains positive, it just gets very small. In the three tests where
this difficulty occurs, an effect size of -0.1 standard units was used instead.
Again, the four studies without statistics had to be assigned an effect
size; they were assigned: d = 0.1.
The results of each test of the Independent Access hypothesis are
shown in Table 1. The Fisher Combined Test shows that words corresponding
to the contextually appropriate meaning of the ambiguous words are responded
to significantly faster than words corresponding to the inappropriate meanings:
X^2(36) = 58.68, p = .01. The contextually appropriate meanings of ambiguous
words are significantly more active, and consequently, sentence contests
influence lexical access.
Significance Level and Effect Size
p d study experiment method
.15 .23 Swinney, 1979 1 lexical decision
.06 .38 " 2 lexical decision
.61 .18 Onifer & Swinney, 1981 1 lexical decision
--* --- " 2 lexical decision
.92 -.10 Kintsch & Mross, 1985 1 lexical decision
.62 -.10 " 2 lexical decision
.02 1.01 " 3 lexical decision
.82 -.10 Till, Mross, & Kintsch, 1988 1 lexical decision
.14 .32 " 2 lexical decision
.57 .15 " 3 lexical decision
.09 .45 Blutner & Sommer, 1988 1 lexical decision
--- --- " 1 lexical decision
.05 .42 Seidenberg, et al., 1982 2 naming
--- --- " 3 naming
.01 1.85 " 4 naming
--- --- " 4 naming
.15 .69 " 5 naming
.01 3.13 Van Petten & Kutas, 1987 1 naming
X^2 (36) = 58.68, p = .01 average effect size (d) = .50
*The hyphen indicates an experiment reporting a nonsignificant effect, but
providing no detailed statistics.
The mean effect size, in standard units, is 0.50. The effect size itself
has a standard deviation of 0.81. The effect's small size can be attributed
speculatively to a number of factors. One cause may be the high speed of the
lexical decision and naming tasks. Response times ranged between 600 and
850 milliseconds. During this brief moment, there is little time for the
sentence context to have an impact. Essentially, the tasks may be so fast as
to be insensitive to some influences.
Another plausible cause of the small effect size is that the sentence
context is rather weak in some studies. Compare the weak context of Kintsch
& Mross (1985), "...The children liked best the huge wood stove in the kitchen
which was made out of iron..." with the strong context of Van Petten & Kutas
(1987), "The gambler pulled an ace from the bottom of the deck." Carpenter
and Daneman (1981) have shown that if a context is weak and one meaning of
an ambiguous word is far more frequent than the other meaning, subjects may
actually misinterpret the ambiguous word by choosing the more frequent, but
contextually inappropriate, meaning. Since a weak context may not affect the
final interpretation of an ambiguous word, it may not immediately affect the
relative levels of activation of its meanings. Weak contexts, then, may not
allow even the possibility for observing differences in activation.
Variance in the effect size may have arisen from variability in word
length and frequency. Though control words to individual experimental words
are matched for these variables, length and frequency across control words
and experimental words are not typically well controlled. Each factor adds a
little variability until the small effect of sentence context is obscured.
Finally, the robustness of the meta-analysis result should be
determined. One measure of robustness is the number of tests demonstrating
equal facilitation of both meanings that would be required to make the meta-
analysis nonsignificant. These hypothetical no-effect studies were defined as
p = .5, since in a t-test, completely overlapping distributions would have this
p-value. Eight no-effect studies were required to drive the estimated chi-
square to nonsignificance (p > .05).
A second measure of robustness is to determine how important each
existing test is to the meta-analysis result. The biggest contributors to the
estimated chi-square are the four significant tests, particularly the two
p < .01 tests. Any one of the four tests may be eliminated without making
the meta- analysis nonsignificant. This result alleviates some concern that
the meta- analysis result might rest on some experimental fluke in a single
experiment. Along this same line, it should be noted that the four significant tests come from three different laboratories.
The contextually appropriate meanings of ambiguous words are
significantly more active than the inappropriate meanings immediately after
the ambiguous word's presentation. This empirical support for the Biased
Activation account of lexical access is often overlooked because many
experiments produce statistically nonsignificant results that are individually
taken to affirm the Independent Access account. But Independent Access,
which predicts all meanings to be equally active, is the null hypothesis in
each experiment. Consequently, a nonsignificant result is only weak evidence
for Independent Access. On the other hand, nearly every experiment shows at
least a trend toward greater activation of the appropriate meaning. In cases
such as this one, multiple replication can draw the effect out of the variance.
The next step is to consider what this result implies about theories of
the lexical access process: Modularity or Interactive Activation. The more
straight-forward implication is Interactive Activation: top-down influences
from the sentence context affect the access process from its beginning. There
are, however, alternative explanations of the Biased Activation result.
*Post-lexical access processing* A common complaint of priming studies
is that they reflect post-lexical access processes, or integration, as well as
access. The claim is that the response task, particularly the lexical decision
task, is slow enough that there is time for integrative processes to boost the
activation of the contextually appropriate target before a response is computed
(e.g. Seidenberg, Waters, Sanders, & Langer, 1984). If this claim is correct,
then there still may be a lexical access module producing Independent Access,
but post-lexical access processes obscure it.
To eliminate the post-lexical access processes, a faster task, such as
naming, can be used so that there is less time for these influences to develop.
A look at Table 1, however, indicates that significant context effects have
been found with both lexical decision and naming. If anything, naming shows
the effect more strongly. The post-lexical access processing hypothesis, then,
is not borne out by the data.
*Semantic associations* Another rival explanation (Seidenberg,
Tanenhaus, Leiman, & Bienkowski, 1982) is that facilitation of the
contextually appropriate target occurs only when the context contains
concepts semantically associated to the target. For example, the concepts
'gambler','deal', and 'cards' are semantic associates. Given the sentence,
"The sly gambler dealt the hand from the bottom of the deck" and the target
word "cards", subjects may respond quickly to "cards" not because of top-down
influences from the sentence context, but because it is semantically associated
to other words in the sentence.
The semantic association explanation grants that the context affects
lexical access, but contends that it is not the sentence context per se, but
simple semantic associations between the words found in a sentence. These
simple associations might well be computed within the lexical access module,
thereby saving the modular theory of processing and denying any interactive,
Of course, semantic associations are a perfectly acceptable, and large,
aspect of a sentence context. On the other hand, a sentence is not simply a
string of words. Its meaning is much more specific than the union of semantic
associations. Does this more specific meaning of the sentence context affect
Seidenberg et al. (1982) addressed this question by removing as many
of the individually associated words from the sentence contexts as possible,
creating what they termed "pragmatic contexts" (experiment 3). They were
left with contexts like, "bought a spade", and "played a spade". They argued
that pragmatics made one meaning more sensible in each context, but that
there were only weak semantic associations. These pragmatic contexts
produced no significant context effect (F < 1). The contextually appropriate
targets were very slightly better primed (18 milliseconds of facilitation for
the appropriate targets vs. 15 milliseconds for the inappropriate targets).
The problem with this study is that in removing all the semantic
associations, Seidenberg et al. removed most of the meaning from the
sentence contexts thereby weakened them. It is possible that the difference
between pragmatic contexts and contexts that contain semantic associations
is not a difference in the kind of information, but in the quantity of
information each applies to the meaning of the ambiguity.
A better approach is to actually test whether the more specific meaning
of a sentence is a better prime than the associations of its individual words.
Along this line, Tabossi (1988b) tested whether a sentence context, as a
whole, would deferentially prime specific features of a concept. Subjects
heard sentences ending in nouns. Immediately after each sentence, subjects
were shown a target word to name aloud. The target word either described a
contextually appropriate feature of the noun or an inappropriate feature. "The
girl was pricked by a rose" makes "thorns" contextually appropriate, but does
not make "scent" appropriate. Though the experiment does not deal with
ambiguous words, it does address a very similar situation. Tabossi found that
subjects were significantly faster to name the contextually appropriate
feature. The inappropriate feature was not significantly primed.
As a control for a possible semantic association between "pricked" and
"thorns", the study included a control condition which retained all but the
final noun: "The girl was pricked by the wasp." If associations between
individual words are responsible for the context effect, then the control
sentence should also demonstrate the effect, and prime "thorns". Tabossi
found no priming for the control sentences. These results suggest that it is
in fact the sentence context per se that influences lexical access.
Of course, this result again confirms a null hypothesis, so it actually
provides only weak evidence against the semantic association explanation. A
second problem with Tabossi's result is the possibility that "wasp"
sufficiently changes the meaning of "pricked" that it no longer primes "thorns".
This explanation, however, assumes rather complicated processing inside
the lexical access module and further degrades the distinction between lexical
access and sentence integration.
More research on the effects of semantic associations and sentence
contexts may clarify these issues. It seems likely, though, that both factors
influence lexical access. To understand the influence of the sentence context
on lexical access, then, we should consider contributions by both the semantic
associations between words and the specific meaning of the sentence as a
Additional Influences on Lexical Access
Biased Activation fits comfortably with our understanding of other
influences on lexical access. Sentence context, meaning frequency, sentence
presentation rate, and attention all appear to influence the access of word
*Frequency* The frequencies of the alternative meanings of ambiguous
words affect the speed and strength of their access. Simpson (1981) found
that, in the absence of a biasing sentence context, the dominant meaning was
more strongly activated than the subordinate meanings 120 milliseconds after
the offset of the ambiguous word. Unfortunately, this dominance effect has not
been tested at shorter delays. Carpenter and Daneman (1981) found that the
more frequent was the dominant meaning of an ambiguous word, the less time
subjects spent reading it.
*Sentence context* The influence of sentence context also varies
according to its strength, as discussed above. Seidenberg et al. (1982) found
small nonsignificant context effects in their weak "pragmatic" condition
(experiment 3), but large significant effects in their strong semantic
condition (experiments 2 and 4). Carpenter and Daneman (1981) pitted sentence
context against meaning frequency for words like "sewer", which have a large
disparity in meaning frequencies (plumbing >> tailor). In a weak sentence
context that supported the subordinate meaning, subjects accessed the
inappropriate, dominate meaning. Much stronger sentence contexts elicited
the contextually appropriate, subordinate meaning.
Kawamoto's (1986) model of lexical access illustrates these effects.
The model is a single layer neural network that settles into a representation
of the orthography and meaning of a word. The sizes of weights represent the
strengths of associations between elements of the representation. For
ambiguous words, the orthographic units are associated with two sets of
semantic units. When a word is read into the network, orthographic unis are
activated. Activation then spreads on each settling cycle to activate
associated meaning units. In this way, the model is able to simulate the time-
course of lexical access.
The effect of meaning frequency is caused by the strengths of weights.
Large weights produce strong and fast settling to a meaning. When the
frequencies of two meanings of an ambiguous word differ, the dominant
meaning acquires activation faster than the subordinate meaning and then
suppresses the subordinate meaning.
Sentence context is incorporated by slightly activating the semantic
units when the orthography is read in. This activation biases the model to
settle into that meaning. However, if the inappropriate meaning is strongly
dominant, the stronger weights from the orthography to that meaning will lead
to an over-riding of the initial semantic bias. This process reproduces
Carpenter and Daneman's inconsistency results.
*Presentation rate* The rate of presentation of the sentence also affects
lexical access by affecting comprehension and thereby any feedback from the
sentence context. Most studies presented the sentences aurally, thereby
giving an average of 350 milliseconds to each word. Kintsch and Mross (1985:
experiment 2), however, presented the sentences visually, one word at a time
in the center of a computer screen. They allotted only 190 miliseconds to each
word. This Rapid Serial Visual Presentation method has been shown to
degrade comprehension even at speeds as slow as 240 milliseconds per word
(Potter, Kroll, & Harris, 1980). At this fast presentation rate, Kintsch and
Mross found a 20 millisecond advantage for the inappropriate targets.
At the other extreme of sentence presenation rates, Van Petten and
Kutas (1987) allotted 900 milliseconds to each word. They found a large and
significant effect of sentence context. Part of this large effect was probably
due to the strengths of their sentence contexts, but another part may have
been due to the amount of time subjects had to develop and apply the sentence
The effect of a fast presentation rate could be produced by Kawamoto's
model simply by reducing the size of the sentence context bias. The reducted
initial activation of the meaning units will then make a smaller impact on the
*Attention* The focus of attention can also influence lexical access.
Blutner and Sommer (1988) varied whether the ambiguous word occurred
inside or outside the attentional focus of the sentence. Focus was
manipulated by first presenting a question that focused attention on a
particular part of the sentence:
Which scenery disappointed the visitors?
The scenery with the mast disappointed the visitors in the gallery.
The lexical decision immediately following the ambiguous word was faster when
the ambiguous word was in the sentence focus. Attention did not affect the
contents of the lexical access, though there is a trend toward a larger
context effect in the focus condition. Rather, attention significantly affects
the speed of the process. This effect could be modelled by universally reducingthe size of the weights in the network to simulate processing outside the focus of attention (cf. Cohen, Dunbar, & McClelland, 1990). The smaller weights will
slow and weaken processing.
Small effects in any domain are difficult to verify. Because they are
small, they are occasionally obscured by variance. This situation can create a
body of conflicting results: some experiments find an effect while others do
not. But nonsignificant trends toward a significant difference should not be
overlooked. They may be caused by a small effect swimming in a sea of
variance. By aggregating across studies even subtle effects can be recovered.
Such is the case with the effect of sentence context on the activation of
ambiguous word meanings. Nearly every experiment testing the Independent
Access hypothesis has at least found a trend toward Biased Activation.
Individually, this trend means nothing, but overall, it constitutes a strong
affirmation of Biased Activation. This result places sentence context among of
set of factors, frequency, presentation rate, and attention, that influence
lexical access. Finally, this result favors an interactive activation account
of lexical access over a modular account.
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An additional study was found (Tabossi, 1988a), but it confounds the
frequency of the meanings of the ambiguous words with the bias of the
sentence context. It could therefore not be used in the analysis.
In the original German, "mast" is ambiguous.
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