News Release

Which it is it?

Resolving ambiguous pronouns: English teachers would be proud

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Association for Psychological Science

"Medicines can be harmful to young children. Make sure you keep them locked in the bathroom cabinet."

This humorous warning demonstrates a common grammatical error - ambiguous pronouns. Most of the time, common sense kicks in and we know we're supposed to lock medication in the bathroom cabinet and not the kids. In other instances, however, the clarification of these phrases is not always so obvious. How we go about removing the ambiguity from ambiguous pronouns without realizing what we are doing is a complex matter of cognitive processes, both grammatical, referring to the part of speech being mentioned, and order-of-mention, meaning where in the phrase the pronoun is placed.

Juhani Järvikivi, Roger P.G. van Gompel, Jukka Hyönä, and Raymond Bertram tackled this challenge, as reported in the article "Ambiguous Pronoun Resolution" in the April 2005 issue of Psychological Science. They found that while both order-of-mention and grammatical thought processes significantly affect ambiguous pronoun resolution, the grammatical aspect is more important.

In designing this study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Finnish Cultural Foundation, the researchers focused on two opposing theories of cognition that dispute the resolution, or assignment of ambiguous pronouns. The "first-mention" account states that the preferred antecedent of the ambiguous pronoun is whichever noun phrase comes first in the sentence, regardless of its grammatical significance. Conversely, the "subject-preference" account argues that the preferred antecedent is the grammatical subject of the sentence, without taking into account its placement in the sentence.

Participants in the study heard several mini-stories (each mini- story including an ambiguous pronoun) as they viewed pictures of the various characters in the story, while an eye tracker monitored the subject's eye movements. Based on which character the subject's vision fixated upon after the mini-story, the researchers could tell which cognitive process was used.

As it turned out, both processes affected the results; people fixated on the subject more often than the object, and the first- mentioned noun phrase more than the second. However, the grammatical role was demonstrably stronger. This would imply that our brains infer meaning from the various parts of speech and that we think in grammatical terms. Therefore, learned grammar means something to us, even if it is only subconsciously.

This study's results bring attention to -- and refute -- earlier studies by Gernsbacher & Hargreaves (1988) and Carreiras et al. (1995), which claimed that cognitive processes generally favor identification with the first-mentioned noun phrase, regardless of grammatical strategies. "Therefore, our results make clear that one- factor models are inadequate, and that pronoun resolution is determined by a delicate interplay of several factors," the authors wrote.

These findings could have implications that learning of grammatical rules is far from outdated and logistically useful. Although traditional styles of teaching grammar like the infamous sentence-diagramming have gone out of practice, knowing the difference between a subject and an object may save you some confusion as to the use of the bathroom cabinet.


For more information, contact Juhani Järvikivi at Download the article at

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.

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