When you read or hear a sentence, how is it that you come to know what the sentence means? Do you wait for the whole sentence to be complete? Or do you build meaning as each word is encountered? Just and Carpenter (1980) studied sentence comprehension and proposed what is known as the immediacy principle, or the notion that listeners and readers choose a meaning for each word, including ambiguous ones, as they hear or see the word. Just and Carpenter (1980) argue that humans don’t have the memory capacity to hold every possible meaning of a sentence at once, and that the immediacy principle reflects a necessity.

Evidence supporting the immediacy principle comes from the fact that people experience a ‘garden path phenomenon’ where they initially assign the incorrect meaning to a word and have to reread the sentence to comprehend it.

Garden path sentence:

The man whistling tunes pianos.

In this sentence the word ‘tunes’ seems at first to be a noun, but it turns out to be a verb. This means the reader has to go back and reinterpret the sentence after reading it. Let’s take a look at whether it took you longer to read garden path sentences than unambiguous sentences.