Processes of understanding anaphora

Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Three experiments explored the understanding of anaphoric verb phrases, verb phrases with ellipsis or a substitute element that must be interpreted through reference to an antecedent. For example, Mom tried out the new car after Dad did contains the pro-verb did. Linguistic analysis of anaphoric verb phrases (VPs) suggests that people use two understanding strategies, one accessing a surface representation of the antecedent in short-term memory and one based on plausible reasoning in a mental "discourse model" of the text. Three experiments investigated how these strategies are coordinated in understanding. Subjects read brief stories one sentence at a time, and their reading times were recorded. The results found that a number of factors affected these reading times. First, long antecedents and antecedents that were syntactically "inconsistent" slowed comprehension. Second, both of these effects held primarily when the antecedent was in the preceding sentence; placing the antecedent further away also slowed reading times overall. Third, the experiments found no reliable differences between two different categories of anaphora ("deep" and "surface" anaphora), nor did any of the other effects depend on the type of anaphor. These results suggest constraints on a theory of how readers coordinate syntactic and pragmatic processes used in interpreting anaphoric verb phrases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)290-303
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1985

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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