The Role of Discourse Prominence in the Resolution of Referential Ambiguities Evidence from Co-reference in Italian

Ilaria Frana


In this paper, I investigate the role of discourse prominence in the resolution of referential ambiguities displayed by anaphoric null subject pronouns (pro) and relational nouns (RNs) in Italian. I advance the hypothesis that, in case of referential ambiguity (when more than one discourse referent qualifies as possible antecedent), the preferred antecedent for pro (or RN) is the most prominent discourse referent available. I will refer to this hypothesis as the Discourse-Prominence Hypothesis of Antecedent Assignment (DPH). To support the DPH, I present evidence from two questionnaire studies on intra-sentential anaphora and RNs in Italian. Experiment 1 investigates the DPH with respect to the resolution of anaphoric pro in Italian, thus contributing to the debate on whether the referring preferences of pronouns in pro-drop languages are governed by purely syntactic factors or information (Samek-Lodovici 1996; Carminati 2002; Frana 2007; Mayol & Clark 2010). This experiment shows that the preferred antecedent for Italian pro is the DP that realizes the most prominent discourse referent (Topic), independently of its syntactic position (subject/object). Experiment 2 , tested the DPH on the interpretation of ambiguous RNs. The results of this experiment showed an interesting trend in the direction predicted by the DPH, however, the data was not statistically significant. Both experiments provide evidence against a purely syntactic account of referential ambiguity resolutions and support the idea that information about the prominence status of discourse referents influences the processor in resolving referential ambiguities. 

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