Skip to Content

Department of Cognitive Science

How does sentence context affect activation of homophone and cohort competitors? Evidence from language-mediated eye movements.

Samantha Calacouris (
Jon Brock (
Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science, Macquarie University Sydney


This study used eyetracking to measure the effects of sentence context on the unfolding process of spoken word identification. It is unclear from previous research whether sentence context affects the processing of spoken words and whether the effect is immediate or delayed. Huettig and Altmann (2004) presented sentences containing a homophone (e.g. pen). Participants tended to look at objects corresponding to both meanings of the homograph (writing pen, pig pen), even when the sentence context was biased towards one interpretation. This suggests that both meanings of a homophone are activated, regardless of context. However, other studies show that on hearing a target word (e.g. button) the tendency to look at a cohort competitor (e.g. butter) disappears if the competitor does not fit the sentence context (Brock & Nation, 2009; Dahan & Tanenhaus, 2004). The discrepancy between these findings may reflect differences in the way homophones are processed compared with other words, or may simply reflect differences in sentence context used across studies. In the present study, we directly compare the effect of the same sentence context on eye-movements directed at homophone and cohort competitors. Participants hear sentences such as "When Mark coughed he felt a pain in his chest so he decided to call the doctor" while viewing a display containing either a homophone competitor (e.g. a treasure chest) or a cohort competitor (e.g. a cheque). Results will shed light on the process of spoken word identification in typical populations and will provide reference for future studies investigating developmental disorders such as autism that are associated with difficulties processing language in context.

Citation details for this article:

Calacouris, S., Brock, J. (2010). How does sentence context affect activation of homophone and cohort competitors? Evidence from language-mediated eye movements. In W. Christensen, E. Schier, and J. Sutton (Eds.), ASCS09: Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science (pp. 28-34). Sydney: Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science.

DOI: 10.5096/ASCS20095
Download the PDF here


  1. Alopenna, P. D., Magnuson, J. S., & Tanenhaus, M.K. (1998). Tracking the time course of spoken word recognition using eye movements: evidence for continuous mapping models. Journal of Memory and Language, 38, 419-439. doi: 10.1006/jmla.1997.2558
  2. Altmann, G. T. (2004). Language-mediated eye movements in the absence of a visual world: The 'blank screen paradigm'. Cognition, 93(2), 247-264. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2004.02.005
  3. Altmann, G. T. M. and Kamide, Y. (2007). The real-time mediation of visual attention by language and world knowledge: Linking anticipatory (and other) eye movements to linguistic processing. Journal of Memory and Language, 57, 502-518. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2006.12.004
  4. Altmann, G. T. M., & Kamide, Y. (1999). Incremental interpretation at verbs: Restricting the domain of subsequent reference. Cognition, 73, 247-264. doi: 10.1016/S0010-0277(99)00059-1
  5. Barr, D. J. (2008). Pragmatic expectations and linguistic evidence: Listeners anticipate but do not integrate common ground. Cognition, 109, 18-40. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.07.005
  6. Boland, J. E. (2005). Visual Arguments. Cognition, 95(3), 237-274. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2004.01.008
  7. Brock, J., & Nation, K. (in preparation). The hardest butter to button: Effects of sentence context on spoken word identification.
  8. Brock, J., Norbury, C., Einav, S., & Nation, K. (2008). Do individuals with autism process words in context? Evidence from language-mediated eye-movements. Cognition, 108, 869-904. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.06.007
  9. Cooper, R. M. (1974). The control of eye fixation by the meaning of spoken language: A new methodology for the real-time investigation of speech perception, memory, and language processing. Cognitive Psychology, 6(1), 84-107. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(74)90005-X
  10. Dahan, D., & Tanenhaus, M. K. (2004). Continuous mapping from sound to meaning in spoken-language comprehension: Immediate effects of verb-based thematic constraints. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 30(2), 498-513. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.30.2.498
  11. Huettig, F., & Altmann, G. T. M. (2004). The online processing of ambiguous and unambiguous words in context: Evidence from head-mounted eye-tracking. In M. Carreiras & C. Clifton (Eds.). The On-line Study of Sentence Comprehension: Eyetracking, ERP and Beyond. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  12. Kamide, Y., Altmann, G. T., & Haywood, S. (2003). The time-course of prediction in incremental sentence processing: Evidence from anticipatory eye movements. Journal of Memory and Language, 49(1), 133-156. doi: 10.1016/S0749-596X(03)00023-8
  13. Lopez, B., & Leekam, S. R. (2003). Do children with autism fail to process information in context? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 280-300. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00121
  14. Marslen-Wilson, W. D. (1987). Functional parallelism in spoken word-recognition. Cognition, 25(1-2), 262-275. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(87)90005-9
  15. Marslen-Wilson, W. D. (1989). Access and integration: Projecting sound onto meaning. In W. Marslen-Wilson (Ed.). Lexical Representation and Process. Cambridge, MA, US: The MIT Press.
  16. Seidenberg, M. S., Tanenhaus, M. K., Leiman, J. M., & Bienkowski, M. (1982). Automatic access of the meanings of ambiguous words in context: Some limitations of knowledge-based processing. Cognitive Psychology, 14(4), 489-537. doi: 10.1016/0010-0285(82)90017-2
  17. Swinney, D. A. (1979). Lexical access during sentence comprehension: (Re)consideration of context effects. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 18(6), 645-659.
  18. Tanenhaus, M. K., Leiman, J. M., & Seidenberg, M. S. (1979). Evidence for multiple stages in the processing of ambiguous words in syntactic contexts. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 18(4), 427-440. doi: 10.1016/S0022-5371(79)90237-8