Field of Science

Findings: Linguistic Universals in Pronoun Resolution

Unlike a proper name (Jane Austen), a pronoun (she) can refer to a different person just about every time it is uttered. While we occasionally get bogged down in conversation trying to interpret a pronoun (Wait! Who are you talking about?), for the most part we sail through sentences with pronouns, not even noticing the ambiguity.

I have been running a number of studies on pronoun understanding. One line of work looks at a peculiar contextual effect, originally discovered by Garvey and Caramazza in the mid-70s:

(1) Sally frightens Mary because she...
(2) Sally loves Mary because she...

Although the pronoun is ambiguous, most people guess that she refers to Sally in (1) but Mary in (2). That is, the verb used (frightens, loves) seems to affect pronoun resolution. Over the last 36 years, many thousands of undergraduates (and many more thousands of participants at have been put through pronoun-interpretation experiments in an attempt to figure out what is going on. While this is a relatively small problem in the Big World of Pronouns -- it applies only to a small number of sentences in which pronouns appear -- it is also a thorn in the side of many broader theories of pronoun processing. And so the interest.

One open question has been whether the same verbs show the same pronoun biases across different languages. That is, frighten is subject-biased and fear is object-biased (the presence of frightens in sentences like 1 and 2 causes people to resolve the pronoun to the subject, Sally, whereas the presence of loves pushes them towards the object, Mary). If this were the case, it would suggest that something about the literal meaning of the verb is what gives rise to the pronoun bias.

(What else could be causing the pronoun bias, you ask? There are lots of other possibilities. For instance, it might be that verbs have some lexical feature tagging them as subject- or object-biased -- not an obvious solution to me but no less unlikely than other proposals out there for other phenomena. Or people might have learned that certain verbs probabilistically predict that subsequent pronouns were be interpreted as referring to the previous subject or object -- that is, there is no real reason that frighten is subject-biased; it's a statistical fluke of our language and we all learn to talk/listen that way because everyone else talks/listens that way.)

random cheetah picture
(couldn't find a picture about cross-linguistic studies of pronouns)

Over the last couple years, I ran a series of pronoun interpretation experiments in English, Russian and Mandarin. There is also a Japanese experiment, but the data for that one have been slow coming in. The English and Russian experiments were run through my website, and I ran the Mandarin one in Taiwan last Spring. I also analyzed Spanish data reported by Goikoetxea et al. (2008). Basically, in all the experiments participants were given sentences like (1) and (2) -- but in the relevant language -- and asked to identify who the pronoun referred to.

The results show a great deal of cross-linguistic regularity. Verbs that are subject-biased in one language are almost always subject-biased in the others, and the same is true for object-biased verbs. I am in the process of writing up the results (just finished Draft 3) and I will discuss these data in more detail in the future, answering questions like how I identify the same verb in different languages. For now, though, here is a little data.

Below is a table with four different verbs and the percentage of people who interpreted the pronoun as referring to the subject of the previous verb. It wasn't the case that the same verbs appeared in all four experiments, so where the experiment didn't include the relevant verb, I've put in an ellipsis.

                         Subject-Biases for Four Groups of Related Verbs in Four Languages                                     
                        Group 1                        Group 2                Group 3                        Group 4
English            convinces 57%          forgives 45%      remembers 24%          understands 60%
Spanish            …                                 …                          recordar 22%               comprender 63%
Russian            ubezhdala 74%         izvinjala 33%     pomnila 47%               ponimala 60%
Mandarin         shuofu 73%               baorong 37%      …                                    …

For some of these verbs, the numbers are closer than for others, but for all verbs, if the verb was subject-biased in one language (more than 50% of participants interpreted the pronoun as referring to the subject), it was subject-biased in all languages. If it was object-biased in one language, it was object-biased in the others.

For the most part, this is not how I analyze the data in the actual paper. In general, it is hard to identify translation-equivalent verbs (for instance, does the Russian nenavidet' mean hate, despise or detest?), so I employ some tricks to get around that. So this particular table actually just got jettisoned from Draft 3 of the paper, but I like it and feel it should get published somewhere. Now it is published on the blog.

BTW If anyone knows how to make bibligraphies in Chrome without getting funky ampersands (see below), please let me know.
Catherine Garvey, & Alfonso Caramazza (1974). Implicit causality in verbs Linguistic Inquiry, 5, 459-464

Goikoetxea, E., Pascual, G., & Acha, J. (2008). Normative study of the implicit causality of 100 interpersonal verbs in Spanish Behavior Research Methods, 40 (3), 760-772 DOI: 10.3758/BRM.40.3.760

photo: Kevin Law

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