The effect of syntactic constraints on the processing of backwards anaphora

Nina Kazanina*, Ellen F. Lau, Moti Lieberman, Masaya Yoshida, Colin Phillips

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


This article presents three studies that investigate when syntactic constraints become available during the processing of long-distance backwards pronominal dependencies (backwards anaphora or cataphora). Earlier work demonstrated that in such structures the parser initiates an active search for an antecedent for a pronoun, leading to gender mismatch effects in cases where a noun phrase in a potential antecedent position mismatches the gender of the pronoun [Van Gompel, R. P. G. & Liversedge, S. P. (2003). The influence of morphological information on cataphoric pronoun assignment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 29, 128-139]. Results from three self-paced reading studies suggest that structural constraints on coreference, in particular Principle C of the Binding Theory [Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht, Foris], exert an influence at an early stage of this search process, such that gender mismatch effects are elicited at grammatically licit antecedent positions, but not at grammatically illicit antecedent positions. The results also show that the distribution of gender mismatch effects is unlikely to be due to differences in the predictability of different potential antecedents. These findings suggest that backwards anaphora dependencies are processed with a grammatically constrained active search mechanism, similar to the mechanism used to process another type of long-distance dependency, the wh dependency (e.g., [Stowe, L. (1986). Evidence for online gap creation. Language and Cognitive Processes, 1, 227-245; Traxler, M. J., & Pickering, M. J. (1996). Plausibility and the processing of unbounded dependencies: an eye-tracking study. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 454-475.]). We suggest that the temporal priority for syntactic information observed here reflects the predictability of structural information, rather than the need for an architectural constraint that delays the use of non-syntactic information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)384-409
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2007


  • Binding
  • Cataphora
  • Coreference
  • Grammatical constraints
  • Parsing
  • Pronouns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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