Age differences in resolving anaphoric expressions during reading

Matthew C. Shake, Elizabeth A.L. Stine-Morrow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One crucial component of reading comprehension is the ability to bind current information to earlier text, which is often accomplished via anaphoric expressions (e.g., pronouns referring to previous nouns). Processing time for anaphors that violate expectations (e.g., The firefighter burned herself while rescuing victims from the building) provide a window into how the semantic representation of the referent is instantiated and retained up to the anaphor. We present data from three eye-tracking experiments examining older and younger adults' reading patterns for passages containing such local expectancy violations. Younger adults quickly registered and resolved the expectancy violation at the point at which it first occurred (as measured by increased gaze duration on the anaphor), regardless of whether sentences were read in isolation or embedded in a discourse context. Older adults, however, immediately noticed the violation only when sentences were embedded in discourse context, suggesting that they relied more on situational grounding to instantiate the referent. For neither young nor old did prior disambiguation within the context (e.g., stating the firefighter was a woman) reduce the effect of the local violation on early processing. For older readers, however, prior disambiguation facilitated anaphor resolution by reducing reprocessing. These results suggest that (a) anaphor resolution unfolds serially, such that prior disambiguating context does not inoculate against local activation of salient (but contextually inappropriate) features, and that (b) older readers use the situational grounding of discourse context to support earlier access to the antecedent, and are more likely to reprocess the context for anaphor resolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)678-707
Number of pages30
JournalAging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2011


  • Aging
  • Anaphora
  • Cognition
  • Eye-tracking
  • Language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • General Medicine


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