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Colloquium: Brian Dillon

April 21, 2023 @ 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm

Speaker: Prof. Brian Dillon (UMass Amherst)

Title: Principle B: The view from comprehension and production


Experimental research has shown that the grammatical constraints reflected in (e.g.) the Binding Theory guide real-time pronoun interpretation, albeit perhaps in a defeasible fashion. Evidence for this conclusion comes from a range of experimental evidence that comprehenders selectively activate grammatically accessible antecedents when processing pronouns and anaphors. But what are the mechanisms by which comprehenders arrive at these grammatically constrained interpretations? And what is the relationship that these mechanisms bear to offline grammatical knowledge and language production?

In this talk I will explore these questions by investigating the nature of the constraints that prevent an object pronoun from coreferring with its local subject in sentences such as “John likes him.” I will present studies from our lab that probe the source of these ‘Principle B effects’ in comprehension and production. In a series of visual world eye-tracking experiments in English, we show that comprehenders incrementally predict disjoint reference between the subject and the object before having any bottom-up evidence of the morphological form the object will take. This finding is consistent with the view that transitive predicates canonically implicate distinct entities for the subject and object roles. In another series of comprehension and production studies in English, we further explore the claim that this constraint can be lifted in discourse contexts where the meaning of a locally coreferent pronoun can be distinguished from the meaning of a locally coreferent reflexive (e.g. Evans, 1980, et seq.). We find only a limited sensitivity to discourse context. Instead, comprehenders and producers systematically avoid coreference between a pronoun and its local subject, even in supportive discourse environments. Overall, our studies lend support to theories of Principle B effects that emphasize the markedness of local coreference as a key driver of Principle B effects; In contrast, we see only limited support for theories that emphasize distinctiveness of meaning in context.


April 21, 2023
3:00 pm - 4:30 pm


18 Seminary Place, Room 108