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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Speakers Use More Informative Referring Expressions to Describe Surprising Events


Production of referring expressions (the dog, it, Snoopy) is a complex process regulated by a combination of linguistic and cognitive constraints. In this paper, we explore the impact of world knowledge on the types of references speakers produce, focusing on predictability of event progressions. We argue that speakers are more likely to use a full noun phrase rather than drop the subject or use a pronoun when they describe an event progression they find surprising. In order to avoid the influence of distributional properties of event descriptions, we created an artificial world and trained subjects to recognize typical collision-event progressions within. Speakers then described novel scenes, which either conformed to their expectations or violated them, in a free production experiment. The results reveal that unpredictable event progressions lead to a more frequent production of full noun phrases, in contrast to reduced linguistic expressions (pronouns and null subjects). We conclude that speakers choose more informative descriptions to talk about surprising events.

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