Interpretation of Verb Phrase Anaphora: Influences of Task and Syntactic Context

Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When listeners hear a sentence like “Will Carey do it?” they must find an interpretation of the phrase “do it”, which is an anaphor replacing a full verb phrase (VP). To accomplish this task, listeners may use two sources of information: finding a recent VP that is syntactically appropriate, or using pragmatics to find a recent discourse event that plausibly completes the sentence. One theory of anaphor comprehension says that listeners use both sources of information in a competition for the best antecedent. Another theory says that listeners use only one of those sources, depending on the syntactic class of anaphor. Two experiments are reported, one using a reading time technique and one a sensicality judgement task. The experiments varied the distance of the antecedent from the anaphor, the material that intervened between the antecedent and anaphor, and the syntactic class of the anaphor. In the reading task, the results followed the predictions of the two-source competition theory, as a number of effects were observed, but none of them depended on the anaphor’s syntactic class. In the judgement task, however, the type of anaphor did influence judgement time. The overall results suggest that there are important differences between simple comprehension tasks and metalinguistic judgements, and that past empirical conflicts may be explicable on this basis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)675-692
Number of pages18
JournalThe Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1 1990

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology


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