LINGUIST List 23.1095

Sun Mar 04 2012

Review: Cognitive Science; Discourse Analysis; Ling Theories: Pu (2011)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 04-Mar-2012
From: Meixia Li <>
Subject: Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional Approach
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AUTHOR: Ming-Ming PuTITLE: Discourse Anaphora: A Cognitive-Functional ApproachSERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Theoretical Linguistics 47PUBLISHER: LINCOM GmbHYEAR: 2011

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


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

This monograph contains 7 chapters. In the introductory chapter, the authorfirst situates discourse anaphora in a new perspective. Discourse anaphora isnot held as a static product or entity linked to its linguistic antecedent in atext but as a manifestation of cognitive processes of memory and attention, andof building discourse coherence and maintaining local and global topics, alongwith the tacit cooperation between speakers and hearers. Against this backgroundthis chapter aims to construct a cognitive-functional model to account for theuse and resolution of discourse anaphora. Then, the scope of the book, thecategorization of anaphora and the overview of the book are given sequentially.This introduction sets the anchoring point, establishing the structure of thebook and providing readers with contextual information so that they have thenecessary 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 memoryand attention mechanisms play in information processing, followed by explorationof how memory and attention mechanisms constrain language production andcomprehension in general, and reference tracking in discourse in particular.After the theoretical discussion, the author states that discourse processing isa collaborative process, in which the speaker makes an effort to facilitate thehearer’s access to the referent with ease so that the hearer can build his /hermental representation of discourse congruent with his/her own by the usage ofanaphora. 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, duringwhich the speaker constantly assesses the activation status of referents in thehearer’s mind and chooses specific anaphora to code the referents accordingly.Then, the author discusses how the two important factors -- topicality andthematic coherence -- modulate the activation level and attention activity ofthe referent during discourse processing, making the referent more or lessaccessible at the moment of utterance. Next, the author proposes acognitive-functional model which explicates the relationship among cognitiveactivities, mental structure building, and discourse anaphora. Finally, theauthor has a discussion of some of the most important functional and cognitivetheories on anaphora, such as the Activation Model, the Referential DistanceModel, Centering Theory, Accessibility Theory, and the Attention Model,critically pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, and stating thathis proposed model differs significantly from others.

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

Chapter Five investigates whether the proposed model can account for discourseanaphora in naturally occurring, character-rich and plot-complex writtennarrative texts, and whether the major anaphoric patterns obtained from the twoexperiments can be found in complex written narrative texts. The study lendsfurther support to the statement made in Chapter Three, that is, the cognitiveconstraints of memory and attention underlying reference tracking can also applyto naturally occurring and structurally complex written narratives, and theanalyses of both contemporary English and Chinese short stories demonstrate thatsimilar distributional patterns of anaphora are used between literary writers ofthe short stories and student writers in the experimental studies.

Based on the evidence from the experimental studies and text analysis, ChapterSix argues that the use of zero anaphora, rather than being constrained bylanguage-specific characteristics, is also governed by the samecognitive-functional principle underlying anaphora tracking. With respect to thefact that that zero anaphora occurs about twice as frequently in Chinese as itdoes in English discourse, the author states that the difference is mainly dueto the definition and classification of ‘clause’, and the determining factorthat influences the use of zero anaphora in Chinese and English discourse is thesustained attentional effort on a referent that is maintained in a micro-unit ofmaximum thematic coherence. This chapter also deals with three types of maximumthematic continuity: topic continuity, action/event continuity, and condensedcontinuity, which, the author argues, are responsible not only for theoccurrence and distribution of zero anaphora but also for the asymmetry betweenzero subject and zero object in both languages. In this chapter, Topic Chain,“in which the topic is almost invariably coded by zero subject, although zeroobjects occur occasionally” (161), and which is the characteristic feature ofChinese, is also taken up and a quite different conclusion is drawn. The authorfinds that topic chain can also be used in English discourse. The chapterfurther explores thematic discontinuity that inhibits the use of zero anaphora.In the end, a fill-in-the-blanks study was used “to test the psychologicalreality of thematic continuity and discontinuity in discourse processing, and todetermine whether such continuity and discontinuity govern the use of covertversus overt referential forms” (207). The study reveals that native speakers ofboth English and Chinese follow the same general rules of anaphor use putforward by the author’s CF model, and their choice of anaphora is in most casesconsistent with what the authors of narratives do. The last chapter sums up themajor 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 ofintrasentential anaphora (specifically, binding relations); the other is thestudy of intersentential anaphora (or discourse anaphora). “The former attractedattention in the 1960s and is one of the central topics in generative syntax andsemantics, but also in current typological studies. The latter has been studiedextensively since the early 1990s within computational linguistics, discourserepresentation theory, and functional approaches such as centering theory”(Reuland et al. 2011). The present study belongs to the latter. This book makesan important and innovative contribution to the study of anaphora, specificallydiscourse anaphora. Traditionally anaphora is defined as involving a “Linguisticelement which refers back to another linguistic element (⇒antecedent) in thecoreferential relationship, i.e. the reference of an anaphora can only beascertained by interpreting its antecedent” (Bussmann 2000:23), yet in thisbook, anaphora is regarded as “a process where references are managed in adeveloping 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 theprocessing of discourse anaphora is a static textual, individual, linear, andisolated process, this study holds that it is a cognitive, interactional,hierarchical and contextual process, which delineates the universality of theprinciples governing the use and interpretation of anaphora. Rather than fixinghis attention on anaphora and text information, the author establishes therelationship among the cognitive mechanism of memory and attention, anddiscourse coherence and anaphora, which unveils the true reason that leads tothe use and resolution of discourse anaphora. Additionally, rather than simplygeneralizing the research on the use of anaphora, this study makes a deepinvestigation into what exactly contributes to the easy accessibility ofreferents. And, rather than merely relying upon qualitative English data, thisresearch adopts both English and Chinese empirical and text data and analyzesthem quantitatively. Finally this study sheds new light on the issue of topicchain, with which zero anaphora is closely connected. It has been traditionallyassumed that topic chain is a device unique to Chinese, because it isuniversally held that Chinese is a topic-oriented language. By contrast, thepresent study argues that topic chain can often be employed in English discoursewhen topicality and coherence are guaranteed, and so that the phenomenon oftopic 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 studyof anaphora, as well as a well-established theoretical framework for theinterpretation of discourse anaphora. It also presents some newthought-provoking ideas concerned with the processing of discourse anaphora andopens up more possibilities for further research.

However, in this monograph, there are a few points which need reconsidering. InChapter Three, the author first puts forward his model and then gives a criticalassessment of the previous theories of the study of anaphora. However, in thereviewer’s opinion, the critical literature review should come before theproposal of a new model which is to be tested by experiments. In this way thischapter would be more coherent internally and externally. Another point isconcerned with the number of participants in the experiments, which included 20native speakers of English and 20 native speakers of Chinese. The samples arecomparatively small, which, to a certain extent, might influence the credibilityof the research result. The third point is about the data for the text analysisin Chapter Five. This chapter presents the following criteria for choosingstories: length, point of view, role of character, and referential environment.Yet, another feature, generic structure, should be included as one of thecriteria. “Genre represents the system of staged goal-oriented social processesthrough which social subjects in a given culture live their lives” (Christie &Martin 1997: 13). So, what generic structure expresses is the fundamental natureof a genre (i.e. narrative). Nevertheless, this book is definitely well-writtenand 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 inthe workplace and school. London: Cassell.

Reuland, Eric, Martin Everaert & Anna Volkova. 2011. Anaphora. OxfordBibliographies 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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