Referent Management in Discourse: The Accessibility of Weak Definites

AbstractIn this paper, we experimentally investigate the discourse properties of weak definites (go to the doctor), and compare them to indefinites (go to a doctor) in German. While indefinite and weak definite noun phrases are highly similar when it comes to their sentence-level meaning, our visual world eye tracking study shows that weak definites are significantly less accessible than indefinites when an ambiguous pronoun needs to be resolved in the subsequent discourse. However, contra some accounts of weak definites, our results also show that it is very much possible for an anaphoric expression to access a weak definite. In sum, our experiment suggests that weak definites introduce new referents into a discourse, but that those referents are embedded into an event structure associated with the stereotypical meaning of a weak definite construction. As a result, referents introduced by weak definites are less prominent than referents introduced by indefinites.

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