Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Helen de Hoop: "On the Interpretation of Stressed Pronouns" (2003)

This paper by Helen de Hoop is essentially about pronoun resolution. It focuses on two clues that can be used to narrow down the field of possible resolution candidates, contrastive stress and local coherence.

Contrastive stress has to do with the fact that changes in focus often come in explicitly marked forms:
  • Paul1 hit Jim2. Then he1 kicked him2. (= Paul kicked Jim)
  • Paul1 hit Jim2. Then HE2 kicked HIM1. (= Jim kicked Paul)
Topic continuity is the constraint which is known from centering theory. In a simplified form, it says that pronouns refer to things that had high salience in the previous sentence. This explains differences like this one:
  • Paul1 is not around. He1 is talking to Alan2. He1 will be back later.
  • Paul1 is not around. He1 is talking to Alan2. *He2 will be back later.
Other clues exists as well (e.g., syntactic parallelism and more subtle salience differences), but these are the ones de Hoop discusses. I should note that centering does not actually fare very well when tested on corpus material.

In the last five pages of her paper, de Hoop formulates her observations about anaphor resolution in terms of an optimality-theoretic constraint system. This system consists of two constraints: one requiring all pronouns to refer to high-salience topics of the previous sentence, and one requiring stressed pronouns to be read in a way that introduces a shift of attention.

De Hoop claims that the Contrastive Stress constraint (S) is stronger than the Continuing Topic (T) constraint. This means that we get the following linear ordering on constraint violations:
None > only T > only S > both S and T.
So if some reading violates, e.g., the constraint S, it must mean that no readings were available that violated only T or nothing at all.

I don't find her argument for ordering the constraints this way entirely convincing, though. She gives examples that violate T but not S, and examples that violate both constraints, but she does not exclude the possibility that other examples might violate S but not T. If such counterexamples exist, they will look more or less like the following:
  • John1 hit Paul2. Then HE1 kicked Paul2.
I don't know if one could find such an example in naturally occurring discourse, but I'm not entirely convinced of the opposite, either. And this strong claim is the prediction that falls out of the optimality-theoretic analysis.

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