Processing Pronominal Coreference in Chinese Discourse: Influences of Word Order, Informativity and Coherence


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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  • Tsz Hin Daniel LEE


Awarding Institution
Award date13 Jan 2016


This psycholinguistic research investigates the influences and interactions of word order, information structure and coherence transitions on coreferential integration in comprehension, which bridges syntactic, pragmatic, and textual interfaces. Pronouns, as a semantically underspecified form of referring expression, are used with a very high frequency and play a crucial role in the maintenance of coherence and comprehensibility of language. Previous research has suggested that pronominal processing is modulated by lexical features and referents’ prominence, which corresponds to accessibility in a discourse representation.

This research consists of four self-paced reading experiments that investigate how referents’ accessibility varies with syntactic positions, informational encoding, and word order. The results show that subject/object asymmetry in a syntactic hierarchy of accessibility is present in the canonical SVO and the passivized BEI constructions, but absent in the topicalized OSV construction. The comparison of the three word orders enables the disentanglement of the often-intertwined first-mention, agent-hood and subjecthood effects at the surface, semantic and syntactic levels respectively, and pinpoints the contribution of the first-mention and subjecthood effects in an interactive manner. The results also indicate that focus, which was expected to raise referents’ salience, is unexpectedly unable to affect referential preference in both SVO and OSV word orders. We suggest that the higher-order pragmatic focus effect cannot override dominant syntactic constraints in coreferential resolution in discourse in which the continuity of various characters is also relevant to coherence in the comprehension process. Furthermore, givenness and syntactic positions of the OSV construction are shown to interact. We argue that informational givenness prompts the subject referent’s accessibility only when grammatical functions are comparably prominent, as with the topicalized object and subject of the OSV word order.

The experimental results shed light on the understanding of how various factors at different linguistic levels contribute to coreferential integration and how these factors interact with each other. More significantly, the present research showing consistency and discrepancy between expectation and processing reality in pronominal resolution processes provides implications for theoretical models of coreference. This research proposes a number of hypotheses and provides evidence for an interactive and multifactorial approach of coreferential processing. Based on discussions of the findings with Accessibility-related theories, Centering Theory, other relevant frameworks and the proposed interactive multifactorial approach, this research demonstrates the complexity and dynamicity of coreference in language processing and advances the theorization of the processing mechanisms and characteristics of coreference in discourse integration.