Possession type affects resolution of possessive pronouns in English VP ellipsis
Keywords:sentence processing, ambiguity resolution, variable binding, coreference, discourse, possessives, VP ellipsis
The sentence “Bill washed his car, and John did, too” has two possible interpretations if the overt his refers to Bill: (i) a coreferential interpretation, in which John washed Bill’s car, or (ii) a bound variable interpretation, in which John washed his own car. What guides comprehenders’ selection of one over the other? Previous research has identified factors such as processing economy (e.g. Reuland, 2001) and lexical semantic properties of the verb and possessed noun (e.g. Foley et al., 2003; Ong & Brasoveanu, 2014). We extend research on the contribution of possession type to resolution of this type of ambiguous VP ellipsis. We hypothesize that the range of possession types found in natural language varies in the extent to which the possessum is processed as an independent discourse referent or as dependent on the discourse representation of its possessor. Moreover, we expect that such differences modulate the possessum’s availability for coreference and, therefore, affect ambiguity resolution. We conducted an experiment testing how different possession relations modulate adult L1 English speakers’ interpretational preference. Inanimate nouns favored bound variable interpretations more than animates did, supporting our hypothesis that the overt possession’s animacy and its resultant discourse status are important factors in the resolution of the elided possessive pronoun. Follow-up experiments confirmed these results and ruled out nouns’ real-world plausibility of possession as a determinant of interpretational preference. Our results suggest that animate possessions are more likely than inanimates to receive independent status in the discourse and consequently to be available for coreference when the ellipsis is interpreted.
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