Favor referential representations

Lyn Frazier, Patrick McNamara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Avrutin and Hickok (1993) argue that agrammatic patients have the ability to represent nonreferential or “government” chains (“who… e”) but not referential or “binding” chains (“which girl… e”). By contrast, we propose the “referential representation hypothesis,” which suggests that agrammatics attempt to cope with their well-known capacity limitations by favoring referential or content-based representations. This predicts that agrammatic patients′ performance should degrade noticeably as task demands increase, and referential demands should take priority over computational ones. In a semantic task, referential phrases should lead to better or more accurate performances. In syntactic tasks, the availability of a referential or content-based representation will interfere with the development of a syntactic representation, resulting in worse syntactic performance on the referential phrases than on nonreferential ones. This predicts that agrammatic patients should incorrectly accept (resumptive) pronoun sentences with a referential wh-phrase because the pronouns will find the semantic or discourse referent of the referential wh-phrase and take it as an antecedent for the pronoun. However, they should reject a (resumptive) pronoun in a sentence with the nonreferential question constituent “who” or “what.” “Who” and “what” will remain in syntactic form, since they have only grammatical content and therefore will have only a “nonreferential” syntactic representation. Consequently, they cannot serve as the antecedent of the pronoun. These predictions were largely confirmed by the results of a grammaticality judgement study. Agrammatics performed well on questions with pragmatic biases but failed to distinguish reliably between grammatical and ungrammatical questions where pragmatic biases were neutralized. They assigned especially low ratings to object gap sentences with referential wh-constituents, as predicted. They assigned relatively high ratings to ungrammatical subject pronoun sentences with either type of wh-constituent. The agrammatics accepted ungrammatical reflexive sentences even though syntactic number and gender features alone could have been used to correctly judge the sentences. We attribute this, too, to the unavailability of a reliable syntactic representation of those phrases with referential or extragrammatical semantic content.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)224-240
Number of pages17
JournalBrain and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1995
Externally publishedYes

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