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Accessing antecedents: Pronouns with infrequent antecedents are easier to process than pronouns with frequent antecedents


Majid,  Asifa
Language and Cognition Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Van Gompel, R. P. G., & Majid, A. (2003). Accessing antecedents: Pronouns with infrequent antecedents are easier to process than pronouns with frequent antecedents. Talk presented at the 9th Annual Conference on Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing [AMLaP 2003]. Glasgow, UK. 2003-08-25 - 2003-08-27.

Although there is ample evidence that high-level linguistic factors such as discourse information and sentence semantics influence the ease with which pronouns are processed (e.g., Garnham, 2002), it is much less clear whether and how low-level, lexical factors influence the processing of pronouns. We report an eye- movement reading study which showed that one low-level factor, the lexical frequency of an antecedent, affects the processing of a subsequent pronoun. When readers process a pronoun, they need to reaccess at least some information about the antecedent in order to establish a coreference link. There are three accounts of how antecedent frequency information affects the processing of a pronoun. On one account, reaccessing the antecedent involves the same processes as initial lexical access. According to this, pronouns with a high frequency antecedent should be easier to process than pronouns with a low frequency antecedent. Secondly, Simner & Smith (1999) argued that processing of pronouns does not involve reaccessing frequency information, and therefore, there should be no effect of antecedent frequency at a pronoun. Finally, a third account predicts that frequency has an effect on pronoun resolution through saliency. When a noun is infrequent, reading times are long, and therefore an infrequent noun may be more salient and accessible than a frequent noun (Pynte & Colonna, 2000). Given that pronouns are easier to process when they refer to a salient antecedent, this leads to the interesting prediction that pronouns that refer to infrequent antecedents should be EASIER to process than pronouns that refer to frequent antecedents. In order to test these predictions, we used stimuli such as below. Unambiguous pronouns (his) that referred to a high- frequent antecedent (actor) were contrasted with those that referred to a low-frequent antecedent (tenor). The crowd thrilled the actor/tenor with a standing ovation. They responded to his performance in an emotional way. Our results supported the saliency hypothesis. First fixation and first-pass times for the antecedent were longer when the antecedent was infrequent than when it was frequent, but this pattern was reversed in both measures for the region following the pronoun (performance). We conclude that low-level, lexical factors influence the processing of pronouns: The less frequent the antecedent, the more salient it is, and the easier it is to process a subsequent pronoun. Furthermore, our data shows that reaccessing antecedents is different from initial lexical access. Finally, we will discuss why previous studies (e.g., Simner & Smith, 1999) failed to observe frequency effects at the pronoun.