Making sense of Kafka: Structural biases induce early sense commitment for metonyms


Prior research suggests that the language processor initially activates an underspecified representation of a metonym consistent with all its senses, potentially selecting a specific sense if supported by contextual and lexical information. We explored whether a structural heuristic, the Subject as Agent Principle, which provisionally assigns an agent theta role to canonical subjects, would prompt immediate sense selection. In Experiment 1, we found initial evidence that this principle is active during offline and online processing of metonymic names like Kafka. Reading time results from Experiments 2 and 3 demonstrated that previous context biasing towards the metonymic sense of the name reduced, but did not remove, the agent preference, consistent with Frazier’s (1999) proposal that the processor may avoid selecting a specific sense, unless grammatically required.

Journal of Memory and Language, 76, 94–112