Definite reference and mutual knowledge: Process models of common ground in comprehension

Keysar, B., Barr, D. J., Balin, J. A., and Paek, T. S. (1998). Definite reference and mutual knowledge: Process models of common ground in comprehension, ,. Journal of Memory and Language, 39(1):1–20. [pdf]


This paper argues that when language users disambiguate definite references they do not follow the cooperative principle as suggested by Grice (1975), or the relevance principle as suggested by Sperber & Wilson (1986), or the optimal design principle as defined by Clark, Schreuder, & Buttrick, 1983). Instead the authors present evidences that speakers follow a Perspective Adjustment Model:

Our model assumes the operation of two processes during comprehension: A fast, un-restricted search that interprets the definite reference by assigning a referent with no regard to mutual knowledge. This process is coupled with a monitoring and adjustment process that is sensitive to considerations of common ground. It uses the meta-knowledge that an entity is mutually known and attempts to correct violations of common ground. In contrast to the unrestricted search, the adjustment process is relatively slow — mainly because it activates higher level, meta-knowledge memory structures. The model assumes that the two processes proceed not in a strict serial fashion but instead in cascades (McClelland, 1979).

The results of this work account for the fact that there is no definite reference: even if the common knowledge between the speakers is fully explicit and readily available in the interaction this does not guarantee that the speakers will use it for disambiguating references during the collaboration process.


Clark, H. H., Schreuder, R., & Buttrick, S. (1983). Common ground and the understanding of demonstrative reference. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 22, 245 – 258.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press

McClelland, J. L. (1979). On the time relations of mental processes: An examination of systems of processes in cascade. Psychological Review, 86, 287 – 330

Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1982). Mutual knowledge and relevance in theories of comprehension. In N. Smith (Ed.), Mutual knowledge. London: Academic Press.

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