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Say Again? Speakers Can Avoid Confusion For Listeners, Researchers Find

Date:
August 5, 2005
Source:
American Psychological Society
Summary:
People often fail to avoid ambiguities when they speak. Previous research has shown that speakers choose their sentences based, in part, on how easy those sentences are to produce for themselves while not taking ease of comprehension into account. An ambiguous phrase is often easier to construct than an unambiguous one, so some people will speak ambiguously even if they are likely to be misunderstood.
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If someone told you to "put the apple in the basket on thetable," what would you do? Depending on how many apples and baskets arein your kitchen, it might not be clear. Would you move the apple in thebasket to the table, or move the apple to the basket on the table? Hadthe speaker included the word "that's" after the word "apple," it wouldhave eliminated any confusion.

But people often fail to avoid suchambiguities when they speak. Previous research has shown that speakerschoose their sentences based, in part, on how easy those sentences areto produce for themselves while not taking ease of comprehension intoaccount. An ambiguous phrase is often easier to construct than anunambiguous one, so some people will speak ambiguously even if they arelikely to be misunderstood.

Are speakers just unaware of thepossibility for confusion? Are they deliberately trying to beuncooperative? Are they just lazy?

Researchers at the Universityof Edinburgh recently attempted to answer these questions. In theirexperiment, Sarah L. Haywood, Martin J. Pickering, and Holly P.Branigan employed a visual game that involved role swapping in order todetermine whether a speaker's choice of words in dialogue indicates adesire for ease of production, ease of comprehension, or both.

Theirfindings are presented in "Do Speakers Avoid Ambiguities DuringDialogue" in the May 2005 issue of Psychological Science, a journal ofthe American Psychological Society.

Participants in the Edinburghexperiment were paired with a scripted confederate and played a game inwhich they alternated giving and following instructions to move objectsaround on a board. Some of the instructions given by the confederatewere ambiguous (e.g. "Put the pig on the block on the heart") andoffered more than one possibility given the arrangement of objects;some were unambiguous statements (e.g. "Put the pig that's on the blockon the heart") with only one possible interpretation.

Theresearchers found that acting as the listener of sometimes ambiguousinstructions seemed to make participants aware of the consequences ofspeaking ambiguously. "We found that their utterances reflected asensitivity to ambiguity," the researchers wrote. "Speakers usedoptional disambiguating words (like that's) more often when the arrayof objects would cause confusion for the listener."

Theyconcluded that speaker's utterances do, in fact, reflect both the easeof production and ease of comprehension. "Speakers can take account oftheir listeners' ease of comprehension, under the right circumstances,"they wrote.


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Materials provided by American Psychological Society. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


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American Psychological Society. "Say Again? Speakers Can Avoid Confusion For Listeners, Researchers Find." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 August 2005. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/08/050805100906.htm>.
American Psychological Society. (2005, August 5). Say Again? Speakers Can Avoid Confusion For Listeners, Researchers Find. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 25, 2024 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/08/050805100906.htm
American Psychological Society. "Say Again? Speakers Can Avoid Confusion For Listeners, Researchers Find." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/08/050805100906.htm (accessed May 25, 2024).

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