What Is Lexical Uncertainty?

Timothy McAdooby Timothy McAdoo

“The usefulness of language derives in no small measure from the fact that it permits reference to a nonlinguistic world—to objects and events, to properties and relations, to all of the distinct phenomena of which perception informs us” (Lockhead & Pomerantz, 1991).

Psychology is a diverse, interdisciplinary field of research with a unique and rich vocabulary. In 2007, APA Books published the APA Dictionary of Psychology to help practitioners, researchers, students, and the public understand this science. (This dictionary, now in its second edition, includes almost 26,000 carefully vetted terms.)

The launch of the APA Books Blog provides a new opportunity to discuss and disseminate the lexicon of psychology, and thus we launch a regular feature—What Is… Wednesdays! Here, we will define and explore psychological terms, occasionally noting APA Books that interested readers may want to consult.


So, what of lexical uncertainty? The APA Dictionary of Psychology offers two descriptions: (a) “In logic, the type of uncertainty that arises from inherent imprecision of human language, and in particular from the attempt to describe and evaluate real-world situations using imprecise and often subjective linguistic categories” and (b) “in psycholinguistics, any uncertainty about the meaning of particular words experienced by or observable in language users.”

For more about lexical uncertainty, On the Consequences of Meaning Selection: Perspectives on Resolving Lexical Ambiguity is a great place to begin. The research in this book sheds light on how we decipher and comprehend ambiguous words.


Gorfein, D. S. (Ed.). (2002). On the consequences of meaning selection: Perspectives on resolving lexical ambiguity. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4318997.aspx

Lockhead, G. L., & Pomerantz, J. R. (1991). The perception of structure. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4318101.aspx>

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4311007.aspx

The first two titles above are available through the PsycBOOKS database. (Students: Note that your library may provide you free access. Check your library’s resources and consult your librarian if you need help!)

Gary R. VandenBos: On Reading and Writing

This is the first in a series of interviews we will conduct with APA Books authors and editors. For this first interview, Mary Lynn Skutley, the Editorial Director of APA Books, interviewed Dr. Gary R. VandenBos, APA’s publisher, who has both written and edited numerous APA Books.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.


Gary VandenBos

Gary R. VandenBos, with son Bret

Gary R. VandenBos, PhD, APA Publisher, is responsible for developing and disseminating psychological knowledge worldwide. Under VandenBos’ leadership, the Office of Publications and Databases produces over 90 journals, 7 databases, and 80 books per year.

Books include scholarly titles for researchers, academics, and students; self-help titles for adults and children; and a complete line of reference works for writers and researchers in psychology. In addition, a comprehensive list of titles on psychotherapy are enriched by the APA Psychotherapy Video Series, designed to demonstrate therapy in action.

VandenBos began his career at Michigan State University as research coordinator of the Michigan State Psychotherapy with Schizophrenics Research Project. After that, he served as the director of the Howell-Area Community Mental Health Center in Howell, Michigan, for 5 years.

VandenBos is editor-in-chief of the award-winning APA Dictionary of Psychology and its derivative dictionaries. He has coauthored or edited more than 30 books, written over 40 book chapters, and published 80-plus peer-reviewed articles. Much of this work is in his two primary areas of expertise, schizophrenia and violent individuals.

Q: What was the first book that changed your life?
A: I read a book by Robert Heinlein when I was about 12 called The Door Into Summer. It was a time-travel novel where a boy’s future self comes to create opportunities for his younger self to shape his life. I found it to be a very optimistic novel that led to thinking about how each of us can play an active role in shaping our future in who and what we become. This was the stimulus that led to developing a lecture called “Planning for your future: How to be ready for six different career paths.”

Q: In 1977, you cowrote a book with Bert Karon on schizophrenia arguing that, contrary to popular notions, psychotherapy was an effective approach to working with schizophrenics. The enhanced sense of agency and possibility you describe also characterizes this book.
A: All of us are shaped by the events that happen to and around us as well as our active processing and interpretation of those experiences. Even as we are the creators of ourselves, we are massively affected by what happens to us—the worse the events of our lives, the more likely our expectations of a negative world and our adoption of nonadaptive behaviors and cognitions. Once we’re aware of this, we can take greater active control of our lives.

Q: Back to your lecture on being ready for multiple career paths. You have in fact had more than six careers, many simultaneously—university professor, active researcher, clinical practitioner, lobbyist, entrepreneur, writer, editor, publishing executive.
Central to all is understanding human behavior and wanting to change and improve the human condition for the greatest number of people possible. Research and data are central to all endeavors. Psychology is a hugely versatile science that can contribute to all areas and activities that involve behavior and understanding.

Q: What do you look for in a good professional book?
I look first for good organization—evidence that the author or editor has actively thought about what information I need or don’t need, what order it would be best for me to receive it in, and how to communicate it effectively for rapid absorption and maximum retention of information. Loving “words,” being precise with words, and knowing how to create a smooth and articulate flow of words are all pluses.

Q: What are you reading?
I’m currently working my way through the third edition of Clinical Neuropsychology: A Pocket Handbook for Assessment. Every edition of this volume has been fantastic. This new edition is as great as the first. At core, the revision updates the empirical knowledge base behind the practice of clinical neuropsychology. This edition includes chapters on cultural aspects of neuropsychology as well as new developments in neuropsychological dimensions of a range of somatic disorders. It, of course, is also updated for the latest classification systems.

Q: What are you writing?
A: I’m writing some chapters to be published in the Handbook of Clinical Psychology that I’m coediting with John Norcross and Don Freedheim. They’re great to work with, and we bring a nice mix of perspectives to any project we work on. A few years ago, we finished the second edition of the History of Psychotherapy, 20 years after the first edition was done. The Handbook of Clinical Psychology is a five-volume set with 150 chapters covering all major topics of training, research, and practice in clinical psychology.

Q: What advice do you have for new writers?
Write, write, and write some more. Make writing something a daily activity. This makes it a habit, and it helps to prevent falling into the traps of self-criticism and self-censoring that stop people from writing. But, in addition to writing, get feedback from others—critical feedback. Getting feedback that says, “That was great—well done!” is not particularly helpful. Getting feedback, large or small, on organization, tone, order of presentation, word usage, and material to cite is a good and useful way to help you improve the quality, effectiveness, and elegance of your writing.