Choosing referring expressions

  • Kumiko Fukumura

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis focuses on the issue of how language users refer to an entity during discourse production, by investigating representations and processes that underlie the choice between pronouns and repeated noun phrases. Past research has shown that the use of pronouns (relative to more explicit expressions) is affected by the referent’s salience in the prior linguistic context, but much less is known about how non-linguistic context affects the referent’s salience and the choice of expression. Recent research has suggested that the referent’s non-linguistic salience has no effect on the choice of pronouns and names (Arnold & Griffin, 2007). One of the major findings of the research reported in this thesis is that the referent's salience in the visual context plays an important role in the form of reference: Pronouns were less frequent (relative to repeated noun phrases) when the competitor was present than absent in the visual context. My second major finding is that similarity-based interference affects the choice of referring expressions. Pronouns are less frequent when discourse entities are similar in terms of their inherent conceptual properties as well as extrinsic properties, suggesting that the more similar the competitor to the referent, the stronger the interference, reducing pronoun usage. My third major finding is that contrary to many linguistic theories that assume that speakers choose referring expressions that are optimally helpful for their addressee (Ariel, 1990; Clark & Marshall, 1981; Givón, 1983), speakers do not choose expressions by adopting the addressee's discourse model: Pronouns are more frequent when the referent is salient to the speaker, not to the addressee. I argue that the explicitness of referring expressions is affected by the degree of conceptual access that is needed to initiate production processes: The more conceptual access is needed, the more elaborate expressions tend to be produced.
    Date of Award2010
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorTrevor Harley (Supervisor)


    • Language production
    • Discourse
    • Audience design
    • Reference
    • Pronoun

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