Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Effect of Noun Phrase Length on the Form of Referring Expressions

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Effect of Noun Phrase Length on the Form of Referring Expressions

Article excerpt

Published online: 5 March 2014

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract The length of a noun phrase has been shown to influence choices such as syntactic role assignment (e.g., whether the noun phrase is realized as the subject or the object). But does length also affect the choice between different forms of referring expressions? Three experiments investigated the effect of antecedent length on the choice between pronouns (e.g., he) and repeated nouns (e.g., the actor) using a sentence-continuation paradigm. Experiments 1 and 2 found an effect of antecedent length on written continuations: Participants used more pronouns (relative to repeated nouns) when the antecedent was longer than when it was shorter. Experiment 3 used a spoken continuation task and replicated the effect of antecedent length on the choice of referring expressions. Taken together, the results suggest that longer antecedents increase the likelihood of pronominal reference. The results support theories arguing that length enhances the accessibility of the associated entity through richer semantic encoding.

Keywords Length . Language production . Referring expressions . Accessibility


Speakers can express the same meaning in many different ways. For example, after saying the boy liked the girl,a speaker can refer back to the girl with a pronoun (she)orwith arepeatednoun(the girl). What makes people choose one referring expression over another? Many theories of reference assume that accessibility affects the choice of referring ex- pressions: People produce less explicit referring expressions, such as pronouns, more frequently when the referent is more salient in the prior discourse and, hence, more easily retrieved from memory (i.e., accessible; see Bock, 1982;Bock& Warren, 1985), and they produce more explicit referring ex- pressions, such as repeated nouns, more frequently when the referent is less accessible (e.g., Ariel, 1990; Givón, 1983; Gundel, Hedberg, & Zacharski, 1993). However, the question of what sources of information affect accessibility and, hence, choice of expressions has not been fully settled.

Previous research has identified some important factors that influence the referent's accessibility and, hence, the choice of referring expressions. It has been shown, for exam- ple, that pronouns are used more often when the antecedent is the syntactic subject of the sentence than when it plays some other grammatical role (Arnold, 2001;Brennan,1995; Fletcher, 1984; Fukumura & Van Gompel, 2010, 2011; Stevenson, Crawley, & Kleinman, 1994). According to vari- ous theoretical accounts (Brennan, 1995; Brennan, Friedman, &Pollard,1987; Gordon, Grosz, & Gilliom, 1993;Grosz, Joshi, & Weinstein, 1995), the syntactic subject is more ac- cessible than other syntactic functions. Moreover, the pres- ence of a referential competitor in the linguistic (Arnold & Griffin, 2007) or visual (Fukumura, Van Gompel, & Pickering, 2010) context reduces the use of pronouns, possi- bly because similarity between referential candidates results in semantic interference, thereby reducing the referent'saccessi- bility (Fukumura, Hyönä, & Scholfield, 2013;Fukumura,Van Gompel, Harley, & Pickering, 2011). Additionally, people are more likely to use pronouns to refer to animate rather than inanimate entities (Fukumura & Van Gompel, 2011), and animate entities have been argued to be more accessible (Bock, 1982; Bock & Warren, 1985).

In the present study, we investigated whether the length of an antecedent (hereafter, antecedent length) affects subse- quent choice of referring expressions to that antecedent (pro- noun vs. repeated noun). According to functional-linguistic theories of reference (e.g., Ariel, 1990; Givón, 1983), the amount of information attached to a noun phrase (henceforth, NP) signals the referent's accessibility in discourse. For ex- ample, in Ariel's(1990) accessibility hierarchy, long definite descriptions such as thefirstwomanselectedtobeontheteam of an American spaceship are ranked lower (i. …

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