Gender features in pronoun resolution processing in Brazilian Portuguese

Michele Alves


Given the fact that the parser has a very restrictive focus of attention, it is memory retrieval that helps us to bind antecedents and pronouns in coreference, which is considered a long distance dependency. Our memory seems to work in a content-addressable way (McElree, 2000; McElree et al, 2003; van Dyke and McElree, 2006), that is, all the antecedent candidates that match the pronoun cues are simultaneously accessed and the correct antecedent is retrieved. However, memory can suffer interference from distractors (Lewis & Vasishth, 2005; Lewis, Vasishth & van Dyke, 2006), items that are similar to the antecedent. Consequently the strength of association between the pronoun's cues and the antecedent's features reduces, and distractors can be retrieved instead of the antecedent. According to some psycholinguistic studies, at least two kinds of cues might play a role in this process: the structural constraints related to Principle B and agreement between antecedents and pronouns. This research aims to investigate how nominal antecedents are retrieved in Brazilian Portuguese, which is a language with morphology richness. The question is whether the structural constraints cues and the agreement cues would have the same influence in coreference processing. Moreover, a comparison between different types of agreement features will also be examined in order to find out whether memory retrieves feminine features differently from masculine; and whether grammatical gender, which is an invariable and arbitrary gender, is retrieved differently from semantic gender, which is related to the biological gender of the referent. The results of an eye-tracking study conducted with 24 native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese indicate that at the beginning of coreference processing, the only cues that are taken into account are the gender features. Interestingly, feminine and grammatical gender features were responsible for greater influences in both grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. On the other hand, the structural constraints seem to play a major role at later processing phases. Additionally, an off-line grammatical judgment experiment with the same materials used in the previous experiment was conducted with forty native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese. The results confirmed the eye-tracking findings as it seems that the presence of attractors influenced on-line and off-line processing as well as the comprehension of the sentences. Therefore, ungrammatical sentences with attractors were treated as grammatical and grammatical sentences with attractors were treated as ungrammatical. Besides that, ungrammatical sentences were also vulnerable to semantic illusions in the presence of attractors, that is, distractors were retrieved as semantic referents.


coreference processing; gender features; Brazilian Portuguese

Full Text:



Copyright (c) 2016 Michele Alves

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Donate to the Open-Access Fund of the LSA

Linguistic Society of America

Advancing the Scientific Study of Language since 1924

ISSN (online): 2473-8689

This publication is made available for free to readers and with no charge to authors thanks in part to your continuing LSA membership and your donations to the open access fund.