Agreement effects of gender and number in pronominal coreference processing in Brazilian Portuguese

Michele Calil dos Santos Alves


Abstract: Pronominal coreference is a syntactic dependency in which pronouns are bound to previous referents in discourse. One of the keys to understanding coreference processing is memory, since information that has already been interpreted and stored must be integrated with new material in real time. The aim of this research is to investigate how pronominal antecedents are retrieved from memory, and more precisely to clarify the role of structural constraints, agreement features and decay factors. Since Brazilian Portuguese has rich morphology, speakers of this language can rely on agreement cues as well as structural constraints to resolve coreference. The hypothesis is that candidates that feature-match pronouns will initially influence coreference processing, even though they violate structural constraints, which will only work later in binding processing to help the parser select the most adequate antecedent. An eyetracking experiment was conducted with twenty-four native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese. The results showed that structurally unacceptable antecedent candidates that feature-matched the pronouns in gender and number facilitated coreference processing. It is claimed that they were considered as potential antecedents. Moreover, it seems that memory might be sensitive to differences that exist between singular and plural features. Plural may be more salient in memory due to the fact it is marked in Brazilian Portuguese. Finally, memory can also be affected by decay factors, which, for example, can be responsible for processing difficulties when there is a long distance between antecedents and pronouns.

Keywords: coreference processing; gender and number features; Brazilian Portuguese.

Resumo: A correferência é uma dependência sintática em que pronomes são ligados a antecedentes prévios no discurso. Uma das chaves para se compreender o processamento da correferência é a memória, uma vez que as informações que foram anteriormente interpretadas e armazenadas devem ser integradas com novo material em tempo real. O objetivo desta pesquisa é investigar como os pronomes recuperam seus antecedentes na memória, mais precisamente, esclarecer o papel das restrições estruturais, dos traços de concordância e dos fatores de decay. Uma vez que o português brasileiro possui rica morfologia, leitores desta língua podem utilizar-se tanto de traços de concordância, como de restrições estruturais para resolver a correferência. A hipótese era de que candidatos que concordassem com os pronomes em gênero e número poderiam influenciar o início do processamento da correferência, apesar de violarem as restrições estruturais, e estas, por sua vez, somente entrariam em jogo mais tarde para ajudar o processador a selecionar o antecedente mais adequado. Foi realizado um experimento de monitoramento ocular com vinte e quarto falantes nativos de português brasileiro e os resultados apontam que antecedentes estruturalmente inaceitáveis que concordam com os pronomes em gênero e número facilitaram o processamento da correferência. Eles foram considerados antecedentes em potencial, apesar de violarem as restrições estruturais. Além disso, parece que a memória pode ser sensível às diferenças existentes entre singular e plural. O plural pode ser mais saliente na memória devido ao fato de ser marcado em português brasileiro. Finalmente, a memória também pode ser afetada por fatores decay, que, por exemplo, podem ser responsáveis por dificuldades de processamento quando há uma distância longa entre os antecedentes e os pronomes.

Palavras-chave: processamento da correferência; traços de gênero e número; português brasileiro.


coreference processing; gender and number features; Brazilian Portuguese.

Full Text:



BADECKER, W.; STRAUB, K. The processing role of structural constraints on the interpretation of pronouns and anaphora. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Washington, v. 28, p.748-769, 2002. DOI:

BOCK, K.; MILLER, C. Broken agreement. Cognition Psychology, Elsevier, v. 23, p. 45-93, 1991.

CHOMSKY, N.; LASNIK, H. The theory of principles and parameters. In: JACOBS, J. et alii (Org.). Syntax, an International Handbook of Comtemporary Research. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gryter, 1993. DOI:

CHOW, W.; SHEVAUN, L.; PHILLIPS, C. Immediate sensitivity to structural constraints in pronoun resolution. Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media, v. 5, article 630, 2014.

CLIFTON, C.; FRAZIER, L.; DEEVY, P. Feature manipulation in sentence comprehension. Rivista di Linguistica, Laboratorio di Linguistica ‘Giovanni Nencioni’, v. 11, p.11-39, 1997.

DILLON, B.; MISHLER, A.; SLOGGETT, S.; PHILLIPS, C. Contrasting intrusion profiles for agreement and anaphora: Experimental and modeling evidence. Journal of Memory and Language, Elsevier, v. 69, p.85-103, 2013. DOI:

JUST, M. C.; CARPENTER, P. A. A theory of reading: from eye fixations to comprehension. Psychological Review, Elsevier, v. 87, n. 4, p. 329-354, 1980.

KENNISON, S. M. Comprehending the pronouns her, him, and his: implications for theories of referential processing. Journal of Memory and Language, Elsevier, v. 49, p.335-352, 2003. DOI:

LAGO, S. Agreement processes in Spanish comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, v. 82, p.133-149, 2015. DOI:

LEITÃO, M.; PEIXOTO, P.; SANTOS, S. Processamento da correferencial intrasentencial em PB. Veredas Online, Juiz de Fora, UFJF, v. 2, p.50-61, 2008.

LEWIS, R. L.; VASISHTH, S. An activation-based Model of sentence processing as skilled memory retrieval. Cognitive Science, Wiley Online Library, v. 29, p.375-419, 2005.

LEWIS, R. L.; VASISHTH, S.; Van DYKE, J. A. Computational principles of working memory in sentence comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Regul.Ed), Elsevier, v. 10, p.44-54, 2006. DOI:

LO, S.; ANDREWS, S. To transform or not to transform: using generalized linear mixed models to analyse reaction time data. Frontiers of Psychology, Frontieres Media, v. 6, 2015. DOI:

McELREE, B. Sentence comprehension is mediated by content addressable memory structures. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, Springer Link, v. 29, p.111-123, 2000.

McELREE, B.; FORAKER, S.; DYER, L. Memory structures that subserve sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, Elsevier, v. 48, p. 67-91, 2003.

NICOL, J.; SWINNEY, D. A. The role of structure in coreference assignment during sentence comprehension. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, Springer Link, v. 18, p.5-19, 1989.

OLIVEIRA, R.; LEITÃO, M.; HENRIQUE, J. A influência dos antecedentes vinculados e não vinculados no processamento da anaphora “a si mesmo”. Revista Linguística, Rio de Janeior, UFRJ, v. 8, n. 2, p. 71-85, 2012. DOI:

PARKER, D. The cognitive basis for encoding and navigating linguistic structure. 2014. Dissertation (PhD) – University of Maryland, 2014.

PATIL, U.; VASISHTH, S.; LEWIS, R. Retrieval interference in syntactic processing: The case of reflexive binding in English. Frontiers of Psychology, Frontiers Media, v. 7, Artigo 329, 2016. DOI:

PHILLIPS, C; WAGERS, M; LAU, E. Grammatical illusions and selective fallibility in real-time language comprehension. In: RUNNER, Jeffrey (Ed.) Experiments at the Interfaces. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Wagon Lane, UK, 2011. (Série Syntax and Semantics, v. 37, p.147-180).

SCHWEPPE, J. Distance Effects in Number Agreement. Discourses Processes, Taylor & Francis Online, v. 50, n. 8, p.531-556, 2013. DOI:

STAUB, A. On the interpretation of the number attraction effect: Response time evidence. Journal of Memory and Language, Elsevier, v. 60, p. 308-327, 2009. DOI:

STURT, P. The time-course of the application of binding constraints in reference. Journal of Memory and Language, v.48, p.542-562, 2003. DOI:

Van DYKE, J.; McELREE, B. Retrieval interference in sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, Elsevier, v. 55, p.157-166, 2006. DOI: .

WAGERS, M.; LAU, E.; PHILLIPS, C. Agreement attraction in comprehension: Representations and processes. Journal of Memory and Language, Elsevier, v. 61, p. 206-237, 2009. DOI:

XIANG, M.; DILLON, B.; PHILLIPS, C. Illusory licensing effects across dependency types: ERP evidence. Brain & Language, Elsevier, v. 108, p.40-55, 2009. DOI:



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2017 Michele Calil dos Santos Alves

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

e - ISSN 2237-2083 


Licensed through  Creative Commons Atribuição 4.0 Internacional    

Image result for fapemig

Grant #APL-00427-17 (2018-2019)