Processing pronouns in global discourse context

Marisa Nagano, Emily Zane


This study examined the interpretation and processing of third-person pronouns when global discourse context supports a less-salient referent as antecedent of a subject pronoun. In particular, we investigated whether such information cancels a default generalized conversational implicature (GCI) biasing a local subject antecedent interpretation for an English overt pronoun. Eye-tracking data was recorded as participants heard four-sentence mini-stories with one of three Contexts: one biasing the subject of the previous clause as antecedent (SB), one biasing another human referent (OB), and one neutral to biasing either referent. Results showed that looking patterns did not diverge in OB and Neutral conditions until after crucial information tying into the larger discourse context was given in the post-pronoun verb. Strong preferences for non-subject referents did not emerge until after the sentence ended, a time-course consistent with participants calculating and then cancelling a default implicature for a subject antecedent. Meanwhile, discourse context reinforcing the default subject implicature in the SB condition facilitated processing, in terms of less time spent looking at either human referent compared the Neutral condition. Overall, results suggest that upon hearing an overt pronoun, English speakers first calculate a GCI that results in a local subject antecedent interpretation, but that, like all implicatures, this GCI can be defeated by contextual factors.


pronoun; context; processing; eye-tracking; conversational implicature

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