[PS-2.10] What is 'it'? Disambiguating pronominal object vs. event reference

Wittenberg, E. & Ferreira, V.

University of California, San Diego

Pronominal reference resolution is not always straightforward. Many studies have shown that ambiguous personal pronouns are resolved using biases from syntax, semantics, and discourse status. What has been investigated much less is reference ambiguity to objects and events, using 'it' vs. 'that'. How do people resolve this ambiguity? One hypothesis is that 'it' is lexically reserved for objects, and 'that', for events; another hypothesis states that the discourse topic will be referred to with 'it', and the less prominent item with 'that'. We investigated these hypotheses in two 2-way-forced-choice tasks.
Experiment 1: 120 English native speakers read scenes like 'Adam cooked lasagna last night. Rachel really liked that/it' and then decided what 'it' or 'that' referred to. We found a strong object preference for 'it' (object-choice: 81%), and a strong object dispreference for 'that' (object-choice: 28%).
Experiment 2: 120 participants read the same scenarios preceded by an event-biasing sentence ('Adam never did anything at home'), or an object-biasing sentence ('Rachel loved Italian food'). Results showed main effects for it/that (more object-choice for 'it') and context (more object-choice after object-context), but no interaction.
This suggests that both discourse status and lexical preferences influence the interpretation of personal and demonstrative pronouns.