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Ambiguity Resolution in Passivized Idioms: Is There a Shift in the Most Likely Interpretation?

Kyriacou, Marianna; Conklin, Kathy; Thompson, Dominic


Marianna Kyriacou


Ambiguous but canonical idioms (kick the bucket) are processed fast in both their figurative (“die”) and literal (“boot the pail”) senses, although processing costs associated with meaning integration may emerge in postidiom regions. Modified versions (the bucket was kicked) are processed more slowly than canonical configurations when intended figuratively. We hypothesized that modifications delay idiom recognition and prioritize the literal meaning, yielding processing costs when the context warrants a figurative interpretation. To test this, we designed an eye-tracking study, where passivized idioms were followed by “keywords” relating to their literal (bucket—water) or figurative (dead—body) meaning, or were incongruent (time). The remaining context was identical. The findings showed a facilitation for the literal meaning: keywords and passivized idioms in the literal condition were read significantly faster in go-past and total reading time, respectively, compared to both the figurative and control conditions. However, both literal and figurative keywords were processed equally fast (and significantly faster than controls) in total reading time. In support of our hypothesis, the literal meaning of passivized idioms appears to be more highly activated and easier to integrate, although the figurative meaning receives some activation that facilitates its (full) retrieval if necessary.


Kyriacou, M., Conklin, K., & Thompson, D. (2022). Ambiguity Resolution in Passivized Idioms: Is There a Shift in the Most Likely Interpretation?. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 7, 2022
Online Publication Date Dec 19, 2022
Publication Date Dec 19, 2022
Deposit Date Oct 20, 2022
Publicly Available Date Dec 19, 2022
Journal Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology / Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale
Print ISSN 1196-1961
Electronic ISSN 1878-7290
Publisher Canadian Psychological Association
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Keywords idioms, modifications, passive voice, eye-tracking, figurative meaning
Public URL
Additional Information This article may not exactly replicate the final version published in the CPA journal. It is not the copy of record.


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