Focus on Cataphora: Experiments in Context

Since Chomsky 1976, it has been claimed that focus on a referring expression blocks coreference in a cataphoric dependency (*Hisi mother loves JOHNi vs. Hisi mother LOVES Johni ). In three auditory experiments and a written questionnaire, we show that this fact does not hold when a referent is unambiguously established in the discourse (cf. Williams 1997Bianchi 2009) but does hold otherwise, validating suggestions in Rochemont 1978Horvath 1981, and Rooth 1985. The perceived effect of prosody, we argue, building on Williams’s original insight and deliberate experimental manipulation of Rochemont’s and Horvath’s examples, is due to the fact that deaccenting the R-expression allows hearers to accommodate a salient referent via a “question under discussion” (Roberts 1996/2012Rooth 1996), to which the pronoun can refer in ambiguous or impoverished contexts. This heuristic is not available in the focus cases, and we show that participants’ interpretation of the pronoun is ambivalent here.


Publication Type

Journal Name

Linguistic Inquiry

Volume Number


Issue Number