Abstract: Comprehending conceptual anaphors

GERNSBACHER, M. A. (1991). Comprehending conceptual anaphors. Language and Cognitive Processes6, 81-105.

English pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number. But in some situations, pronouns violate this constraint, as in “I think I’ll order a frozen margarita. I just love them.” Three situations are identified in which such violations occur: (1) Plural (and technically illegal) pronouns are used to refer to Frequently or Multiply occurring Items or Events (as opposed to a Unique Item/Event); (2) plural pronouns are used to refer to Generic Types (as opposed to a Specific Token); and (3) plural pronouns are used to refer to animate members of a Collective Set (as opposed to an Individual Member of a set). When sentences contained illegal, plural pronouns that referred to Multiple Items/Events, Generic Types, or Collective Sets, they were rated more natural (Experiment 1) and comprehended more rapidly (Experiment 2) than when the same sentences contained legal, singular pronouns. But when the sentences contained legal, singular pronouns and referred to Unique Items/Events, Specific Tokens, or Individual Members of a set, they were rated more natural and comprehended more rapidly. The results underscore the role that pragmatic information – perhaps in the form of mental models – plays in the on-line interpretation of conceptual anaphors, such as pronouns.