"They're digging up the road again": the processing cost of institutional "they"

Sanford, A.J., Filik, R., Emmott, C. and Morrow, L.I. (2008) "They're digging up the road again": the processing cost of institutional "they". Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(3), pp. 372-380. (doi: 10.1080/17470210701634552)

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Publisher's URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470210701634552


It is commonplace to use the pronoun <i>they</i> to refer to agents in certain situations without ever providing a referent, as in <i>On the train, they served really bad coffee</i>. Such an example we call "Institutional They", because such defaults typically represent the actions of some agent tied stereotypically to a situation. These cases represent an important subset of unheralded pronouns (Gerrig, 1986), pronouns without any explicit antecedent. While in many situations, the occurrence of referential pronouns without explicit antecedents entails a processing cost, an eye-tracking experiment revealed no reliable detectable costs associated with Institutional They. However, there were for singular pronouns without antecedents in the same situations. We argue that Institutional They cases result from properties of plural pronouns (<i>they</i> and <i>them</i>). These will accept underspecified type-referents, while singular pronouns require specified token-referents. Failure to identify token-referents results in disruption of processing in the case of singulars, but not in the case of the plurals.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Morrow, Dr Lorna and Emmott, Dr Catherine and Sanford, Professor Anthony and Filik, Dr Ruth
Authors: Sanford, A.J., Filik, R., Emmott, C., and Morrow, L.I.
Subjects:P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
College/School:College of Science and Engineering > School of Psychology
College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Journal Name:Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
ISSN (Online):1747-0226
Published Online:15 October 2007

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
362761Stylistics, text analysis and cognitive science - interdisciplinary perspectives on the nature of readingCatherine EmmottThe Arts & Humanities Research BoardAHRB-POSTCRIT - ENGLISH LANGUAGE