Wasow (1972) introduced the distinction between weak and strong
cross-over, illustrated in (1) because examples like (1a) seem
possible in appropriate contexts, whereas the indicated coreference in
(1b) is totally impossible.
(1) a. ??Whoi did you talk to the boy shei liked about?
b. *I know whoi Charlie think hei hurt.
Following a suggestion of Culicover's, Wasow proposed that the gaps in
long-distance dependencies contain traces coindexed with the fillers.
Under this analysis, the low acceptability of an example like (1a) is
related to the low acceptability of cataphora with indefinite
(2) ??I talked to the boy shei liked about a girli.
Work by Hofmeister, Sag, Clausen and others has shown that at least
some island phenomena can be explained in terms of factors that cause
processing difficulty. They have shown that the graded nature and
context sensitivity of many island phenomena are better explained in
terms of demands on memory during processing than through appeals to
universal grammatical constraints.
This talk explored the possibility of explaining weak-crossover (WCO)
in similar terms. It reported on three studies in which participants
identified the referent of a pronoun and then rated sentences on a
seven-point Likert scale. The test sentences were embedded in a
context designed to favor the intended interpretation of the pronoun.
Each study contained examples with short (uninformative) antecedents
for the pronoun as well as examples with longer (informative)
antecedents. The three studies investigated WCO in questions, WCO in
relative clauses, and cataphora. Each study also contained controls
without the phenomenon under study, as well as both grammatical and
ungrammatical fillers. Sample stimuli are given in (3)-(5).
(3) WCO in Questions:
The hiring committee was presented with only a subset of the
applicants. Some had been eliminated because their files were
incomplete, but the committee chair dropped one applicant because of
negative comments from colleagues who knew that applicant well. THE
REST OF THE COMMITTEE WAS NOT TOLD WHO/WHICH JOB APPLICANT PEOPLE THAT
KNEW HIM WELL HAD CRITICIZED
(4) WCO in Relative Clauses
In the bottom of the fourth inning, a questionable call elicited jeers
from the visitors' dugout. One of the umpires evidently heard
something sufficiently offensive to stick his head into the dugout and
issue a warning. THE RADIO ANNOUNCER COULDN'T SEE THE PERSON/VISITING
PLAYER WHO THE UMPIRE HE HAD OFFENDED HAD WARNED.
The news media are already beginning to cover the race for the 2012
Republican presidential nomination. At a recent convention of GOP
bigwigs, many potential candidates were soliciting endorsements.
EVERYONE HE SOLICITED HAD PURPORTEDLY AGREED TO ENDORSE ONE
Our expectations of these experiments included the following:
- In all three studies, we expected the controls (non-WCO or anaphora)
to be judged better than the test sentences (WCO or cataphora).
- In all studies, we expected informative antecedents to be judged
better than the uninformative antecedents.
- We expected WCOs to be judged better than the ungrammatical fillers.
- We expected the embedded question WCOs to be judged worse than the
relative clause WCOs.
- We expected the cataphora examples to be judged better than the
Our studies collected 1111 ratings of embedded question WCOs, 1447
relative clause WCOs, and 1220 ratings of cataphora examples, from a
total 361 participants. The results confirmed some of our
expectations but not others. Specifically:
- As expected the controls (non-WCO or anaphora) were judged better
than the test sentences (WCO or cataphora).
- As expected, informative antecedents were generally judged better
than the uninformative antecedents, but not in embedded question
WCOs or in RC controls. This difference is a mystery to us.
- Contrary to our expectations, the embedded question WCOs were judged
slightly better than the relative clause WCOs.
- As expected, the cataphora examples were judged better than the
- Even informative WCOs received low acceptability scores, but were
rated higher than ungrammatical fillers.
We tentatively concluded that processing factors play a role in the
low acceptability of WCO. In particular:
- The processing cost of filler-gap dependencies makes WCO hard.
- The processing cost of establishing pronoun-antecedent pairings
makes WCO hard.
- WCO involves the same extra processing cost as cataphora.
- Informative antecedents mitigate the processing costs, at least
- Whether the cumulative processing costs are sufficient to account
for the low acceptability of WCO examples remains unclear.
The question of whether weak cross-over effects can be fully explained
in terms of constraints on processing remains unresolved but deserves
- Clausen, David R. (2010) Processing Factors Influencing Acceptability
in Extractions from Complex Subjects. Unpublished ms., Stanford
- Hofmeister, Philip (2011) Representational Complexity and Memory
Retrieval in Language Comprehension. Language and Cognitive
Processes, Volume 26.
- Hofmeister, Philip, and Ivan A. Sag (2010) Cognitive Constraints and
Island Effects. Language, Volume 86.
- Wasow, Thomas (1972) Anaphoric Relations in English. MIT dissertation
Maintained by Stefan Müller
Created: November 15, 2011
Last modified: January 09, 2019