Who's "she"? Discourse prominence influences preschoolers' comprehension of pronouns

Hyun Joo Song, Cynthia Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Citations (Scopus)


Four experiments examined whether 3-year-olds' comprehension of pronouns was affected by the discourse prominence of the possible antecedents. In each experiment, children listened to short stories. The final (test) sentence of each story differed in whether it continued the grammatical subject (and first-mentioned character) established in prior sentences or shifted to a new one, and whether it had a pronoun or a lexical noun phrase subject. We assessed comprehension by measuring accuracy in an elicited imitation task (Experiment 1), and responses in a looking-preference comprehension task (Experiments 2-4). Both measures revealed a continued-subject bias in the interpretation of pronouns: Children tended to interpret a pronoun as coreferential with the subject (and first-mentioned character) in the preceding context. Thus young children's comprehension of a sentence is affected not only by knowledge of its words and syntactic structure, but also by the prominence of each referent in a representation of the discourse; referent prominence is affected by some of the same factors that affect coreference processing in adulthood. These findings suggest considerable continuity in the basic architecture of the sentence processing system throughout development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-57
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2005 Jan

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research reported in this paper was supported by NIH Grant R01 HD44458, by the Research Board of the University of Illinois, and by master’s and dissertation research grants from the University of Illinois to the first author. We thank Renée Baillargeon, Kay Bock, Kyle Chambers, Gary Dell, Susan Garnsey, Yael Gertner, Adele Goldberg, and Kristine Onishi for many helpful comments, the undergraduate research assistants of the language acquisition lab for their help in data collection, and the parents and children who participated in this research.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


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