Common ground and the probabilistic nature of referential domains: Daphna Heller


Goodman Cancer Research Centre, Room 501, CA, 1200 Pine Avenue West, CA


Theoretical approaches to reference assume that definite descriptions such as “the candle” are used to refer to a candle which is uniquely identifiable relative to a set of entities defined by the situational context. Thus, the interpretation of definite descriptions crucially depends on listeners’ ability to correctly construct this situation-specific “referential domain”. While there is considerable experimental evidence that listeners are indeed able to use various types of information to construct referential domains in real time, some evidence seems to suggest that information about common ground is not used for this task. That is, evidence in the psycholinguistics literature is mixed regarding whether listeners incorporate the distinction between shared and private information in the earliest moments of processing.

In this talk, Dr. Heller will review some of these apparently-contradictory results (Keysar et al., 2000; Heller et al., 2008), and argue that they can be explained under a novel approach to referential domains. Specifically, she proposes that instead of choosing one domain over another, listeners simultaneously consider more than one domain, weighing probabilistically their relative contribution. Dr. Heller will present data from two experiments in support of this approach, and discuss the implications for our understanding of referential domains more generally.

The talk is organized by the GRIPP group. GRIPP is an interdisciplinary reading Group to discuss work at the intersection of Reference, Information structure, Prosody and Pragmatics (GRIPP), organized by CRBLM members Aparna Nadig (McGill SCSD), Kris Onishi (McGill Psychology), Michael Wagner (McGill Linguistics), and Meghan Clayards (McGill SCSD and Linguistics)


Daphna Heller received her BA and Master in Linguistics from Tel Aviv University. She received her PhD in Linguistics from Rutgers in 2005, and then spent a couple of years as a post doctoral fellow in Brain & Cognitive Science at the University of Rochester and at the Psychology Department at the University of Toronto. She is currently an assistant professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. Daphna's research focuses on experimental semantics and pragmatics, but is also interested in formal approaches to pragmatics, and in anything concerning Hebrew.

Contact Information

Aparna Nadig
aparna.nadig [at]