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Learn Motiv. 2008 Jan 1;49:209-246.

Ambiguity, Accessibility, and a Division of Labor for Communicative Success.

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University of California, San Diego.


People talk to be understood, and so they should produce utterances that are easy for their listeners to understand. I begin this chapter by describing evidence showing that speakers rarely avoid sentences that are ambiguous, even though ambiguity is a factor that is well known to cause difficulty for listeners. Instead, speakers seem to choose utterances that are especially easy for them to say, specifically by producing more accessible, easy-to-think-of material sooner, and less accessible, harder-to-think-of material later. If speakers produce utterances that are easy to say but not utterances that are easy to understand, how is it that we understand each other? A third line of evidence shows that even when sentences are structurally ambiguous, they're likely to include enough information for comprehenders to figure out what they mean. This suggests that speakers produce ambiguous utterances simply because they can -- because the grammar of their language will only let them produce utterances that are unambiguous enough to be understood most of the time anyway. And so, we understand each other because speakers produce utterances efficiently even if they're not optimally understandable; addressees do what they need to to understand their speakers; and the grammar makes sure everything works out properly.

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