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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Role of Physical Inference in Pronoun Resolution


When do people use knowledge about the world in order to comprehend language? We asked whether pronoun resolution decisions are influenced by knowledge about physical plausibility. Results showed that referents which are more physically plausible in described events were more likely to be selected as antecedents of ambiguous pronouns, implying that resolution decisions were driven by physical inference. An alternative explanation is that these decisions were driven instead by distributional word knowledge. We tested this by including predictions of a statistical language model (BERT) and found that physical plausibility explained variance on top of the statistical language model predictions. This indicates that at least part of people's pronoun resolution judgments comes from knowledge about the world and not the word. This result constrains psycholinguistic models of comprehension—world knowledge must influence propositional interpretation—and raises the broader question of how non-linguistic physical inference processes are incorporated during comprehension.

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