Discourse coherence and the interpretation of accented pronouns


  • Mindaugas Mozuraitis Cancer Care Ontario
  • Daphna Heller Department of Linguistics, University of Toronto




It has long been argued that accenting or stressing a pronoun (i.e., making it prosodically prominent) changes its interpretation as compared to its unaccented counterpart. However, recent experimental work demonstrated that this generalization does not apply when the alternative interpretation of the pronoun is not plausible (Taylor et al., 2013). In a series of three experiments that use an offline comprehension task, we show, first, that the lack of reversal is observed when plausibility is controlled for. We furthermore show that a new generalization cannot be formed by excluding cases where the bias towards the unmarked interpretation is strong or cases where the character in the alternative interpretation is low in salience. Instead, we conclude that what constrains the interpretation of accented pronouns is coherence relations, with parallel discourses exhibiting reversal and result discourses not exhibiting reversal. We propose that the difference between coherence relations should be viewed in what would be the minimal change in order to create a ‘surprising’ or expected’ event, which is the characteristic of accenting more generally.