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Pronoun interpretation in adults with IDD (Hawthorne & Loveall, 2023)

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posted on 2023-08-10, 21:55 authored by Kara Hawthorne, Susan J. Loveall

Purpose: Pronouns are referentially ambiguous: For example, “she” could refer to any female. Nonetheless, errors in pronoun interpretation rarely occur for adults with typical development (TD) due to several strategies implicitly shared between the talker and listener. The purpose of this study was to test the impacts of syntactic, semantic, and prosodic prominence on pronoun interpretation for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and TD.

Method: Adults with IDD (n = 28) and TD (n = 27) listened to ministories involving a pronoun with two potential antecedents that varied in syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic prominence. Subject/first-mentioned antecedents are more syntactically prominent than object antecedents. Semantic prominence was manipulated via verb transitivity: Subjects are more semantically prominent when the verb is highly transitive (e.g., “hit” vs. “see,” a low-transitivity verb for which the subject is merely experiencing the action). Pragmatic prominence was manipulated by placing prosodic focus on one of the two potential antecedents. Eye gaze to images representing the potential antecedents was tracked as a measure of online processing. Responses to a follow-up pronoun interpretation question were also recorded.

Results: Adults with TD used syntactic, semantic, and—in early processing—pragmatic prominence when interpreting ambiguous pronouns. Adults with IDD were sensitive to syntactic prominence but to a significantly lesser extent than their peers with TD.

Conclusions: Pronouns are an integral part of everyday conversation, and when the conversational partners do not share common strategies to link ambiguous pronouns with their antecedents, misunderstandings will occur. Results show that adults with IDD only weakly share pronoun interpretation strategies with adults with TD, suggesting that pronouns may be an important focus for intervention for this population.

Supplemental Material S1. Statistical results.

Hawthorne, K., & Loveall, S. J. (2023). The effects of syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic prominence on pronoun interpretation in adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 66(9), 3606–3621.