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A Probabilistic Reconciliation of Coherence-Driven and Centering-Driven Theories of Pronoun Interpretation (talk recording available)
Dr. Andy Kehler
Tuesday, April 09, 2013, 01:00pm - 02:00pm
University of California, San Diego, Department of Linguistics
Two classic theories of pronoun interpretation have sought to explain pronoun use within a larger theory of discourse coherence, but make seemingly irreconcilable claims. According to Hobbs (1979, 1990), pronoun interpretation is not governed by an independent mechanism, but instead comes about as a by-product of utilizing world knowledge during the inferential establishment of discourse coherence relations. Factors pertaining to the grammatical form and information structure of utterances do not come into play. According to Centering Theory (Grosz et al. 1986/1995, inter alia), on the other hand, pronoun interpretation is predominantly determined by information structural relationships within and between utterances (e.g., topic transitions) and the grammatical roles occupied by potential referents. Factors pertaining to world knowledge and the establishment of informational coherence relations do not come into play.
In this talk I describe a series of psycholinguistic experiments that ultimately suggest a reconciliation of these diverse approaches. These experiments reveal a definitive role for coherence relationships of the Hobbsian sort, demonstrating that pronoun interpretation is affected by (i) probabilistic expectations that hearers have about the coherence relationships that will ensue, and (ii) their expectations about what entities will be mentioned next which, crucially, are conditioned on those coherence relationships. However, these experiments also reveal a role played by the grammatical and/or topichood status of potential referents. These data are reconciled by a simple probabilistic model that combines the hearer's coherence-driven prior expectations about what entities will be referred to next and Centering-driven likelihoods that govern the speaker's choice of referential form. The approach situates pronoun interpretation within a larger body of work in psycholinguistics, according to which language interpretation is the result of top-down predictions about the ensuing message coming into contact with the bottom-up linguistic evidence.