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Anaphora resolution

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Anaphora resolution

For other uses, see Anaphora (disambiguation).

In linguistics, anaphora /əˈnæfərə/ is the use of an expression the interpretation of which depends upon another expression in context (its antecedent or postcedent). In the sentence Sally arrived, but nobody saw her, the pronoun her is anaphoric, referring back to Sally. The term anaphora denotes the act of referring, whereas the word that actually does the referring is sometimes called an anaphor (or cataphor). Usually, an anaphoric expression is a proform or some other kind of deictic expression.[1]

Anaphora is an important concept for different reasons and on different levels: first, anaphora indicates how discourse is constructed and maintained; second, anaphora binds different syntactical elements together at the level of the sentence; third, anaphora presents a challenge to natural language processing in computational linguistics, since the identification of the reference can be difficult; and fourth, anaphora tells us some things about how language is understood and processed, which is relevant to fields of linguistics interested in cognitive psychology.[2]

Nomenclature and examples

The term anaphora is actually used in two ways. In a broad sense, it denotes the act of referring. Any time a given expression (e.g. a proform) refers to another contextual entity, anaphora is present. In a second, narrower sense, the term anaphora denotes the act of referring to the left, that is, the anaphor points to its left toward its antecedent (in languages that are written from left to right). In this narrow sense, anaphora stands in contrast to cataphora, which sees the act of referring pointing to the right. A proform is a cataphor when it points to its right toward its postcedent. Both effects together are called endophora. In the broad sense, the term anaphora includes all of these referential effects.[3] Examples of anaphora and cataphora are given next. Anaphors and cataphors appear in bold, and their antecedents and postcedents are underlined:

Anaphora (endophora)
a. Susan dropped the plate. It shattered loudly. - The pronoun it is an anaphor; it points to the left toward its antecedent the plate.
b. The music stopped, and that upset everyone. - The demonstrative pronoun that is an anaphor; it points to the left toward its antecedent The music stopped.
c. Fred was angry, and so was I. - The adverb so is an anaphor; it points to the left toward its antecedent angry.
d. If Sam buys a new bike, I will do it as well. - The verb phrase do it is anaphor; it points to the left toward its antecedent buys a new bike.
Cataphora (endophora)
a. Because he was very cold, David put on his coat. - The pronoun he is a cataphor; it points to the right toward its postcedent David.
b. His friends have been criticizing Jim for exaggerating. - The possessive adjective his is a cataphor; it points to the right toward its postcedent Jim.
c. Although Sam might do so, I will not buy a new bike. - The verb phrase do so is a cataphor; it points to the right toward its postcedent buy a new bike.
d. In their free time, the kids play video games. - The possessive adjective their is a cataphor; it points to the right toward its postcedent the kids.

A further distinction is sometimes drawn. One distinguishes between endophoric and exophoric reference. Exophoric reference occurs when an expression, an exophor, refers to something that is not directly present in the linguistic context, but is rather present in the situational context. Deictic proforms are stereotypical exophors, e.g.

a. This garden hose is better than that one. - The demonstrative adjectives this and that are exophors; they point to entities in the situational context.
b. Jerry is standing over there. - The adverb there is an exophor; it points to a location in the situational context.

Finally, one can also acknowledge homophoric reference. Homophoric reference occurs when a generic phrase obtains a specific meaning through knowledge of its context. For example, the referent of the phrase the Queen must be determined by the context of the utterance, which would identify the identity of the queen in question. In discussing 'The Mayor' (of a city), the Mayor's identity must be understood broadly through the context which the speech references as general 'object' of understanding.

The "anaphor" in generative grammar: a source of confusion

The term anaphor is used in a special way in generative grammar. It denotes a reflexive or reciprocal pronoun in English and analogous forms in other languages. The use of the term anaphor in this narrow sense is unique to generative grammar, and in particular, to the traditional binding theory.[4] This theory investigates the syntactic relationship that can or must hold between a given proform and its antecedent (or postcedent). Anaphors (reflexive and reciprocal pronouns) behave much differently than, for instance, personal pronouns.[5] Due to the prominence of the traditional binding theory in the study of syntax, this specialized meaning has been a source of confusion about exactly what an anaphor is supposed to be.

Complement anaphora

In some special cases, anaphora may refer not to its usual antecedent, but to its complement set. This phenomenon was first studied in a series of psycholinguistic experiments in the early 1990s.[6] In the following example a, the anaphoric pronoun they refers to the children who are eating the ice-cream. Contrastingly, example b has they seeming to refer to the children who are not eating ice-cream:

a. Only a few of the children ate their ice-cream. They ate the strawberry flavor first.
b. Only a few of the children ate their ice-cream. They threw it around the room instead.

The fact that examples like the second one here (example b) exist seems odd. By definition, an anaphoric pronoun must refer to some noun (phrase) that has already been introduced into the discourse. In complement anaphora cases, however, it is difficult to explain how the anaphor can refer to something that is, from a technical standpoint, not present, since the referent of the pronoun has not been formerly introduced. The set of ice-cream-eating-children in example b is introduced into the discourse, but then the pronoun 'they' refers to the set of non-ice-cream-eating-children, a set which has not been properly mentioned.

Several accounts of this phenomenon are found in the literature, based on both semantic and pragmatic considerations. The most important point of debate is the question, whether the pronoun in sentence b refers to the complement set (i.e. only to the set of non-ice-cream-eating-children), or to the maximal set (i.e. to all the children, while discounting the minority group).[7] The answer to this question may have theoretical consequences regarding the kind of information the brain is able to access or calculate, and also pragmatic consequences regarding the way a theory of anaphora resolution should be constructed.

See also



  • Büring, D. 2006. Binding theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bussmann, H., G. Trauth, and K. Kazzazi 1998. Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics. Taylor and Francis.
  • Chomsky, N. 1981/1993. Lectures on government and binding: The Pisa lectures. Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Corblin, F. 1996. Quantification et anaphore discursive: la reference aux comple-mentaires. Linguages. 123, 51–74.
  • Kibble, R. 1997. Complement anaphora and dynamic binding. In Proceedings from Semantics and Linguistic Theory VII, ed. A. Lawson, 258–275. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University.
  • McEnery, T. 2000. Corpus-based and computational approaches to discourse anaphora. John Benjamins.
  • Moxey, L. and A. Sanford 1993. Communicating quantities: A psycho-logical perspective. Laurence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Nouwen, R. 2003. Complement anaphora and interpretation. Journal of Semantics, 20, 73–113.
  • Sanford, A., L. Moxey and K. Patterson 1994. Psychological studies of quantifiers. Journal of Semantics 11, 153–170.
  • Tognini-Bonelli, E. 2001. Corpus linguistics at work. John Benjamins.

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • What is anaphora?
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