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Review of  Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional Approach

Reviewer: Meixia Li
Book Title: Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional Approach
Book Author: Ming-Ming Pu
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 23.1095

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AUTHOR: Ming-Ming Pu
TITLE: Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional Approach
SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Theoretical Linguistics 47
YEAR: 2011

Meixia Li, School of English Language, Literature and Culture, Beijing
International Studies University, Beijing, China


This book suits such readers as university teachers, graduate students and
researchers who are interested in the study of anaphora, cross-linguistic
studies, discourse analysis, and language teaching and learning. In this book,
the author first proposes a cognitive-functional model to account for how the
construction of mental structures determines the use and resolution of discourse
anaphora. Afterwards he does a comparative quantitative study of both English
and Chinese empirical and text data, which demonstrates that on the one hand the
occurrence and distribution of discourse anaphora is more universal in nature
than language-specific, and on the other hand that the proposed model is
adequate, feasible and workable.

This monograph contains 7 chapters. In the introductory chapter, the author
first situates discourse anaphora in a new perspective. Discourse anaphora is
not held as a static product or entity linked to its linguistic antecedent in a
text but as a manifestation of cognitive processes of memory and attention, and
of building discourse coherence and maintaining local and global topics, along
with the tacit cooperation between speakers and hearers. Against this background
this chapter aims to construct a cognitive-functional model to account for the
use and resolution of discourse anaphora. Then, the scope of the book, the
categorization of anaphora and the overview of the book are given sequentially.
This introduction sets the anchoring point, establishing the structure of the
book and providing readers with contextual information so that they have the
necessary knowledge about the present research topic.

Drawing on prior research in diverse yet related fields such as psychology,
neuroscience and linguistics, the second chapter discusses the role that memory
and attention mechanisms play in information processing, followed by exploration
of how memory and attention mechanisms constrain language production and
comprehension in general, and reference tracking in discourse in particular.
After the theoretical discussion, the author states that discourse processing is
a collaborative process, in which the speaker makes an effort to facilitate the
hearer’s access to the referent with ease so that the hearer can build his /her
mental representation of discourse congruent with his/her own by the usage of
anaphora. This chapter serves as the theoretical foundation for the following study.

The third chapter presents a cognitive-functional model of discourse anaphora.
It first argues that discourse anaphora is a hearer-oriented process, during
which the speaker constantly assesses the activation status of referents in the
hearer’s mind and chooses specific anaphora to code the referents accordingly.
Then, the author discusses how the two important factors -- topicality and
thematic coherence -- modulate the activation level and attention activity of
the referent during discourse processing, making the referent more or less
accessible at the moment of utterance. Next, the author proposes a
cognitive-functional model which explicates the relationship among cognitive
activities, mental structure building, and discourse anaphora. Finally, the
author has a discussion of some of the most important functional and cognitive
theories on anaphora, such as the Activation Model, the Referential Distance
Model, Centering Theory, Accessibility Theory, and the Attention Model,
critically pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, and stating that
his proposed model differs significantly from others.

By presenting two experimental studies, Chapter Four is devoted to the validity
of the proposed cognitive-functional model of discourse anaphora. The first
experiment examines the connection between cognitive mechanisms and discourse
anaphora, specifically, the effect of major disruptions in the flow of
information on the use of anaphora. The second experiment focuses on the effect
of minor thematic discontinuities in the cognitive accessibility of referents
and hence the use of anaphora. In the two experiments, the stimulus material is
from a children’s picture storybook entitled “Here Comes Alex Pumpernickel”. The
participants are native speakers of both English and Chinese.. The tasks for
each participant include both on-line and recall; and participants are asked to
produce oral and written narratives. An analysis of the data is presented,
further indicating that discourse anaphora is governed by cognitive mechanisms
of memory and attention, with the modulation of thematic coherence and topicality.

Chapter Five investigates whether the proposed model can account for discourse
anaphora in naturally occurring, character-rich and plot-complex written
narrative texts, and whether the major anaphoric patterns obtained from the two
experiments can be found in complex written narrative texts. The study lends
further support to the statement made in Chapter Three, that is, the cognitive
constraints of memory and attention underlying reference tracking can also apply
to naturally occurring and structurally complex written narratives, and the
analyses of both contemporary English and Chinese short stories demonstrate that
similar distributional patterns of anaphora are used between literary writers of
the short stories and student writers in the experimental studies.

Based on the evidence from the experimental studies and text analysis, Chapter
Six argues that the use of zero anaphora, rather than being constrained by
language-specific characteristics, is also governed by the same
cognitive-functional principle underlying anaphora tracking. With respect to the
fact that that zero anaphora occurs about twice as frequently in Chinese as it
does in English discourse, the author states that the difference is mainly due
to the definition and classification of ‘clause’, and the determining factor
that influences the use of zero anaphora in Chinese and English discourse is the
sustained attentional effort on a referent that is maintained in a micro-unit of
maximum thematic coherence. This chapter also deals with three types of maximum
thematic continuity: topic continuity, action/event continuity, and condensed
continuity, which, the author argues, are responsible not only for the
occurrence and distribution of zero anaphora but also for the asymmetry between
zero subject and zero object in both languages. In this chapter, Topic Chain,
“in which the topic is almost invariably coded by zero subject, although zero
objects occur occasionally” (161), and which is the characteristic feature of
Chinese, is also taken up and a quite different conclusion is drawn. The author
finds that topic chain can also be used in English discourse. The chapter
further explores thematic discontinuity that inhibits the use of zero anaphora.
In the end, a fill-in-the-blanks study was used “to test the psychological
reality of thematic continuity and discontinuity in discourse processing, and to
determine whether such continuity and discontinuity govern the use of covert
versus overt referential forms” (207). The study reveals that native speakers of
both English and Chinese follow the same general rules of anaphor use put
forward by the author’s CF model, and their choice of anaphora is in most cases
consistent with what the authors of narratives do. The last chapter sums up the
major findings of the study in detail, and presents the necessity for future study.


The study of anaphora can be classified into two sorts: one is the study of
intrasentential anaphora (specifically, binding relations); the other is the
study of intersentential anaphora (or discourse anaphora). “The former attracted
attention in the 1960s and is one of the central topics in generative syntax and
semantics, but also in current typological studies. The latter has been studied
extensively since the early 1990s within computational linguistics, discourse
representation theory, and functional approaches such as centering theory”
(Reuland et al. 2011). The present study belongs to the latter. This book makes
an important and innovative contribution to the study of anaphora, specifically
discourse anaphora. Traditionally anaphora is defined as involving a “Linguistic
element which refers back to another linguistic element (⇒antecedent) in the
coreferential relationship, i.e. the reference of an anaphora can only be
ascertained by interpreting its antecedent” (Bussmann 2000:23), yet in this
book, anaphora is regarded as “a process where references are managed in a
developing discourse to maintain discourse topics and achieve coherence” (4).
This definition emphasizes the function of anaphora in a dynamic perspective,
which thus enlarges the scope of anaphora. Then, rather than assuming that the
processing of discourse anaphora is a static textual, individual, linear, and
isolated process, this study holds that it is a cognitive, interactional,
hierarchical and contextual process, which delineates the universality of the
principles governing the use and interpretation of anaphora. Rather than fixing
his attention on anaphora and text information, the author establishes the
relationship among the cognitive mechanism of memory and attention, and
discourse coherence and anaphora, which unveils the true reason that leads to
the use and resolution of discourse anaphora. Additionally, rather than simply
generalizing the research on the use of anaphora, this study makes a deep
investigation into what exactly contributes to the easy accessibility of
referents. And, rather than merely relying upon qualitative English data, this
research adopts both English and Chinese empirical and text data and analyzes
them quantitatively. Finally this study sheds new light on the issue of topic
chain, with which zero anaphora is closely connected. It has been traditionally
assumed that topic chain is a device unique to Chinese, because it is
universally held that Chinese is a topic-oriented language. By contrast, the
present study argues that topic chain can often be employed in English discourse
when topicality and coherence are guaranteed, and so that the phenomenon of
topic chain is more language-general. This argument may subvert our long-held,
deep-rooted thinking that topic chain is only found in in Chinese. All in all,
this study offers us an extensive overview of the previous theories of the study
of anaphora, as well as a well-established theoretical framework for the
interpretation of discourse anaphora. It also presents some new
thought-provoking ideas concerned with the processing of discourse anaphora and
opens up more possibilities for further research.

However, in this monograph, there are a few points which need reconsidering. In
Chapter Three, the author first puts forward his model and then gives a critical
assessment of the previous theories of the study of anaphora. However, in the
reviewer’s opinion, the critical literature review should come before the
proposal of a new model which is to be tested by experiments. In this way this
chapter would be more coherent internally and externally. Another point is
concerned with the number of participants in the experiments, which included 20
native speakers of English and 20 native speakers of Chinese. The samples are
comparatively small, which, to a certain extent, might influence the credibility
of the research result. The third point is about the data for the text analysis
in Chapter Five. This chapter presents the following criteria for choosing
stories: length, point of view, role of character, and referential environment.
Yet, another feature, generic structure, should be included as one of the
criteria. “Genre represents the system of staged goal-oriented social processes
through which social subjects in a given culture live their lives” (Christie &
Martin 1997: 13). So, what generic structure expresses is the fundamental nature
of a genre (i.e. narrative). Nevertheless, this book is definitely well-written
and is highly recommended.


Bussmann, Hadumod. 2000. Routledge dictionary of language and linguistics.
Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Christie, F. & J. R. Martin. 1997. Genre and institutions: Social processes in
the workplace and school. London: Cassell.

Reuland, Eric, Martin Everaert & Anna Volkova. 2011. Anaphora. Oxford
Bibliographies Online.

Meixia Li is a Professor in Linguistics in the School of English Language, Literature and Culture, Beijing International Studies University, China. Her research interests lie in discourse studies, functional linguistics, cognitive linguistics, and language teaching and learning. Currently she is working on the contrastive study on the use of formulaic language between English and Chinese.

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