What does “it” mean, anyway? Examining the time course of semantic activation in reference resolution

Cybelle M. Smith, Kara D. Federmeier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pronouns serve a critical referential function, yet the cognitive processes engaged during pronoun comprehension remain incompletely understood. One view is that encountering a pronoun leads the comprehender to reactivate the semantic features of its antecedent. We examined this by manipulating the concreteness of a noun antecedent and assessing whether an Event Related Potential (ERP) concreteness effect was elicited at a downstream pronoun. We observed a robust concreteness effect at the noun, but no similar effect at the pronoun. We also examined whether N400 semantic priming from the antecedent would increase on content words shortly following the pronoun, relative to those preceding it. Again, although we observed semantic priming following the noun, it did not increase following the pronoun. Our data suggest that pronouns do not induce the activation of (much) new semantic information in long-term memory, perhaps instead triggering an attentional shift towards their antecedents’ extant representations within working memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)115-136
Number of pages22
JournalLanguage, Cognition and Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2019


  • N400
  • Reference
  • concreteness
  • pronoun
  • semantic memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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