Field of Science

Findings: Linguistic Universals in Pronoun Resolution - Episode II

A new paper, based on data collected through, is now in press (click here for the accepted draft). Below is an overview of the paper.

Many of the experiments at have to do with pronouns. I find pronouns interesting because, unlike many other words, the meaning of a pronoun is almost entirely dependent on context. So while "Jane Austen" refers to Jane Austen no matter who says it or when, "I" refers to a different person, depending mostly on who says it (but not entirely: an actor playing a part uses "I" to refer not to himself but to the character he's playing). Things get even hairier when we start looking at other pronouns like "he" and "she". This means that pronouns are a good laboratory animal for investigating how people use context to help interpret language.

Mice make lousy laboratory animals for studying the role of context in language.
Pronouns are better.

I have spent a lot of time looking at one particular 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. Replace "frightens" and "loves" with other verbs, and what happens to the pronoun depends on the verb: some verbs lead to subject resolutions like frightens, some to object resolutions like loves, and some leave people unsure (that is, they think that either interpretation of the pronoun is equally reasonable).

The question is why. One possibility is that this is some idiosyncratic fact about the verb. Just as you learn that the past tense of walk is walked but the past tense of run is ran, you learn that some verbs lead you to resolve pronouns to the verbs' subject and some the verbs' object (and some verbs have no preference). This was what was tentatively suggested in the original Garvey and Caramazza paper.

Does the meaning of the verb matter?

One of the predictions of this account is that there's nothing necessary about the fact that frightens leads to subject resolutions whereas loves leads to object resolutions, just as there is no deep reason that run's past tense is ran. English could have been different.

Many researchers have suspected that the pronoun effects we see are not accidental; the pronoun effects arise from some fundamental aspect of the meanings of frightens and loves. Even Garvey & Caramazza suspected this, but all the hypotheses they considered they were able to rule out. Recently, using data from, we presented some evidence that this is right. Interestingly, while researchers studying pronouns were busy trying to come up with some theory of verb meaning that would explain the pronoun effects, many semanticists were independently busy trying to explain verb meaning for entirely different reasons. Usually, they are interested in explaining things like verb alternations. So, for instance, they might notice that verbs for which the subject experiences an emotion about the object:

(3) Mary likes/loves/hates/fears John.

can take "that" complements:

(4) Mary likes/loves/hates/fears that John climbs mountains.

However, verbs for which the object experiences an emotion caused by the subject do not:

(5) Mary pleases/delights/angers/frightens John.
(6) *Mary pleases/delights/angers/frightens that John climbs mountains.

[The asterisk means that the sentence is ill-formed in English.]

Linguists working on these problems have put together lists of verbs, all of which have similar meanings and which can be used in the same way. (VerbNet is the most comprehensive of these.) Notice that in this particular work, "please" and "frighten" end up in the same group as each other and a different group from "like" and "fear" are in a different one: Even though "frighten" and "fear" are similar in terms of the emotion they describe, they have a very different structure in terms of who -- the subject or the object -- feels the emotion.

We took one such list of verb classes and showed that it explained the pronoun effect quite well: Verbs that were in the same meaning class had the same pronoun effect. This suggests that meaning is what is driving the pronoun effect.

Or does it?

If the pronoun effect is driven by the meaning of a verb, then it shouldn't matter what language that verb is in. If you have two verbs in two languages with the same meaning, they should both show the same pronoun effect.

We aren't the first people to have thought of this. As early as 1983, Brown and Fish compared English and Mandarin. The most comprehensive study so far is probably Goikoetxea, Pascual and Ancha's mammoth study of Spanish verbs. The problem was determining identifying cross-linguistic synonyms. Does the Spanish word asustar mean frighten, scare, or terrify?
Is this orangutan scared, frightened or terrified? Does it matter?

Once we showed that frighten, scare and terrify all have the same pronoun effect in English, the problem disappeared. It no longer mattered what the exact translation of asustar or any other word was: Given that entire classes of verbs in English have the same pronoun effect, all we needed to do was find verbs in other languages that fit into the same class.

We focused on transitive verbs of emotion. These are the two classes already introduced: those where the subject experiences the emotion (like/love/hate/fear) and those where the object does (please/delight/anger/frighten) (note that there are quite a few of both types of verbs). We collected new data in Japanese, Mandarin and Russian (the Japanese and Russian studies were run at and/or its predecessor, and re-analyzed published data from English, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Finnish.

Results for English verbs (above). "Experiencer-Subject" verbs are the ones like "fear" and "Experiencer-Object" are the ones like "frighten". You can see that people were consistently more likely to think that the pronoun in sentences like (1-2) referred to the subject of Experiencer-Object verbs than Experiencer-Subject verbs.

The results are the same for Mandarin (above). There aren't as many dots because we didn't test as many of the verbs in Mandarin, but the pattern is striking.

The Dutch results (above). The pattern is again the same. Again, Dutch has more of these verb, but the study we re-analyzed had only tested a few of them.

You can read the paper and see the rest of the graphs here. In the future, we would like to test more different kinds of verbs and more languages, but the results so far are striking, and suggest that the pronoun effect is caused by what verbs mean, not some idiosyncratic grammatical feature of the language. There is still a lot to be worked out, though. For instance, we're now pretty sure that some component of meaning is relevant to the pronoun effect, but which component and why?

Hartshorne, J., and Snedeker, J. (2012). Verb argument structure predicts implicit causality: The advantages of finer-grained semantics Language and Cognitive Processes, 1-35 DOI: 10.1080/01690965.2012.689305

Goikoetxea, E., Pascual, G., and 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

Garvery, C., and Caramazza, A. (1974). Implicit causality in verbs Linguistic Inquiry, 5 (3), 459-464

Roger Brown and Deborah Fish (1983). Are there universal schemas of psychological causality? Archives de Psychologie, 51, 145-153


KateGladstone said...

Has the Garvery/Caramazza effect been tested on people with Asperger's Syndrome? I have Asperger's, and in sentences of the "Sally loves/frightens Msry" type I've only a chance expectancy of resolving the pronoun to the correct antecedent.

GamesWithWords said...

@KateGladstone: There are a number of laboratories currently looking at pronoun processing in folks on the spectrum, but to the best of my knowledge, none have yet looked at this particular phenomenon.

That said, not everybody has the same intuitions about these sentences, so the fact that you don't get the typical intuition may not have anything to do with Asperger's. I would like to look at individual differences at some point, though the website might not be the right place to do it.