Beyond salience: Interpretation of personal and demonstrative pronouns

Sarah Brown-Schmidt, Donna K. Byron, Michael K. Tanenhaus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three experiments examined the hypothesis that it preferentially refers to the most salient entity in a discourse, whereas that preferentially refers to a conceptual composite. In Experiment 1, eye movements were monitored as participants followed spoken instructions such as, Put the cup on the saucer. Now put it/that.... The preferred referent was the theme (cup) for it and the composite for that (cup on the saucer) with the goal (saucer) rarely chosen. Experiment 2 demonstrated that stressing it reduces the number of theme interpretations. Experiment 3 replicated the main findings from Experiment 1, regardless of whether or not the theme was the backward-looking center. The authors conclude that entities without linguistic antecedents are sometimes preferred over entities with linguistic antecedents and a single construct such as salience is insufficient to account for differences among referential forms. Candidate reference-specific constructs include the availability of conceptual composites and syntactic role.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)292-313
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Anaphora
  • Cognitive status
  • Conceptual composite
  • Demonstrative
  • Eye-tracking
  • Pronoun
  • Salience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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