Eponymous verb phrases and ambiguity resolution

David N N Rapp*, Richard J. Gerrig

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


To understand eponymous verb phrases such as 'do a John Travolta,' readers cannot merely select a sense out of a mental lexicon (sense selection). They must create new senses (sense creation) by retrieving salient information from memory. We conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that these processes of memory retrieval parallel those used for ordinary lexical ambiguities. To prepare for Experiment 1, we gathered readers' interpretations of eponymous verb phrases like 'do a John Travolta' to establish dominant and subordinate interpretations. We then wrote story contexts that biased comprehension toward one or the other interpretation. In Experiment 1, paraphrase judgment times were used to demonstrate that dominant meanings are privileged in the sense that they are accessible even when the story creates a subordinate bias. In Experiment 2, this privilege faded somewhat when there was a delay before the paraphrase judgment. We discuss the results with respect to the distinction between sense selection and sense creation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)612-618
Number of pages7
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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