Agentivity drives real-time pronoun resolution: Evidence from German er and der

Petra Schumacher, Leah Roberts, Juhani Jarvikivi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We report two experiments on the referential resolution of the German subject pronoun er and the demonstrative der (‘he’). Using the
visual world eye-tracking paradigm, we examined the effects of grammatical role, thematic role and the information status of potential
referents in the antecedent clause operationalized by word-order (canonical/non-canonical), in the context of active--accusative verbs
(Exp. 1) and dative-experiencer verbs (Exp. 2). In information-structurally neutral contexts, er prefers the proto-agent and der the protopatient.
This suggests that agentivity is a better predictor for pronoun resolution than subjecthood or sentence topic as previously
proposed. It further supports the claim that agentivity is a core property of language processing and it more generally substantiates the
proposal from cognitive sciences that agentivity represents core knowledge of the human attentional system. With non-canonical
antecedent clauses, because they lack alignment of prominence features, interpretive preferences become less stable, indicating that
multiple cues are involved in pronoun resolution. The data further suggest that the demonstrative pronoun elicits more reliable interpretive
biases than the personal pronoun
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-41
Number of pages17
Early online date6 Aug 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Aug 2016

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