Interpreting pronouns and connectives: Interactions among focusing, thematic roles and coherence relations

Rosemary Stevenson, Alistair Knott, Jon Oberlander, Sharon McDonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This paper investigates the relationship between focusing and coherence relations in pronoun comprehension. In their focusing model of pronoun comprehension, Stevenson, Crawley and Kleinman (1994) proposed a default focus on the thematic role associated with the consequences of a described event, a focus that may be modified by the attention-directing properties of a subsequent connective. In this paper we examine a second function of connectives: that of signalling the coherence relations between two clauses (e.g., a NARRATIVE relation or a RESULT relation). In three studies, we identified the coherence relations between sentence fragments ending in pronouns and participants’ continuations to the fragments. We then examined the relationship between the coherence relation, the preferred referent of the pronoun and the referent’s thematic role. The results of studies 1 and 2 showed that people aim to keep the focused entity, the coherence relation and the referent of the pronoun in alignment. Study 3 included the connective next, which enabled us to generate different predictions for the roles of focusing and coherence relations in pronoun resolution. The results favoured the focusing view. The preferred referent of the pronoun was the focused, first mentioned, individual, whereas the coherence relation was consistent with the thematic role of the pronominal referent. If the pronoun referred to an Agent, a NARRATIVE relation was preferred, if the pronoun referred to a Patient, a RESULT relation was preferred. Discussion of these and other results led to the following conclusions. First, pronoun resolution is primarily determined by focusing, either semantic or structural, although a range of other features, including coherence relations and verb semantics, may also act as pressures on pronoun resolution. Second, the consistent link we observed between thematic roles and coherence relations may provide a mapping between a represented entity and a represented event. Third, the connectives we used have three distinct functions: an attention directing function, a function for constraining the possible coherence relation between two events, and a function for interpreting a clause as having either a causal or a temporal structure.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)225-262
Number of pages38
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2000


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