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Journal of Pragmatics 16 (1991) 443-463



The function of accessibility in a theory of

Mira Ariel*
Ariel (1985, 1988) has argued that discourse anaphora is determined by reference to the notion of
accessibilit) in memory storage. Under the assumption that mental representations (specifically
those of NPs) are accessible to addressees in varying degrees, the claim is that speakers choose
between referring expressions so as to mark such accessibility differences for the addressee's
Thus, different referring expressions (e.g., definite descriptions, demonstrative pronouns,
pronouns) mark different degrees of accessibility. Definite descriptions mark relatively low
accessibility, demonstrative pronouns and pronouns mark relatively higher degrees of accessibility. The linguistic coding of degrees of accessibility is claimed to derive from three universal
principles: Informativity, Rigidity and Attenuation, such that more informative, less ambiguous
and more highly pronounced, longer forms retrieve less accessible referents.
This article argues that precisely the same mechanism is responsible for the distribution of
sentential anaphoric expressions. ! focus on Hebrew zero/pronoun choices, which are realised in a
variety of forms and inflectional morphemes. The conclusion is that both intuitive grammaticality
judgments and distributional patterns in texts corroborate the accessibility claim. Thus, the richly
informative, rigid and fully articulated 1st and 2nd person pronouns mark relatively low
accessibility. The present tense inflection, which is uninformative, ambiguous and attenuated,
marks an extremely high degree of accessibility. Other markers are used for a variety of
intermediate degrees of accessibility.

1. Introduction

The proposals initially offered in Ariel (1985) were designed to account for the
process of accessing mental representations used in interpreting utterances.
Broadly speaking, the question posed by Accessibility theory (see Ariel 1985,
1988, 1990) is how context is brought into use while processing sentences. The
proposal, as first formulated, attempts to account for all the grammatical
categories used when marking the need to access context, i.e., NPs, VPs, and
Ss. I have since concentrated specifically on the accessing of NP antecedents.
Assuming that mental representations are not equally accessible to addressees at any given stage of the discourse, I have suggested (Ariel 1985, 1988,
* Author's address: M. Ariel, Department of L;aguistics, TeI-Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv, TelAviv 69978, Israel.
0378-2166/91/$03.50 199! -- Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. (North-Holland)


M. Ariel / Accessibility

1990) that context-retrieving expressions, referring expressions among them,

are in fact Accessibility markers. These markers are specialized, such that each
points to a different degree of memory availability. Focusing on referring
expressions, the claim is that addressees are guided in antecedent retrievals by
considering the degree of Accessibility signalled by the marker, rather than by
noting the contextual source marked (general knowledge, physical salience,
linguistic material), as had commonly been assumed by pragmaticists (Clark
and Marshall 1981, Prince 1981, inter alia). This is the general claim. Two
questions immediately come to mind: the diagnostic question, namely, what
determines degree of Accessibility? and the coding question, i.e., on what
basis are specific linguistic forms chosen for marking specific degrees of
The first question will be briefly dealt with in section 2. It is followed by
empirical evidence supporting the relevance of psycholinguistic factors in the
choice among referring expressions in natural discourse (2.1). Based on the
empirical evidence presented, referring expressions will be arranged on a scale
of Accessibility. We then turn to the coding question, suggesting three criteria
are universally used to translate the cognitive concept of Accessibility into
linguistic dress: informativity, rigidity and attenuation (section 3). It is these
criteria, we shall suggest, that determine the particular assignment of degree of
Accessibility to particular linguistic forms.
We then argue the main point of this paper, the claim that parallel to the
discourse-level observations presented in section 2, sentence-level anaphora
obeys Accessibility theory too (section 4). The 'Avoid Pronoun' principle will
be seen to be redundant (4.1). Zero subjects will serve to spell out the
predictions made by Accessibility theory regarding sentential anaphora (4.2).
A detailed analysis of a variety of Hebrew examples with zero subjects follows
(4.3), so that we can conclude that parallel to the discourse-level phenomena,
sentence-level expressions too form a scale of Accessibility. Thus, the same
psycholinguistic factors are seen to be operative in grammatical decisions, and
the same formal criteria determine which sentence-level forms are to be
associated with what degrees of Accessibility.

2. Discourse-level references

Assessing the degree of Accessibility associated with a given memory item is a

psychological matter, which will not be addressed here. The relevant considerations have already been identified in the psycholinguistic literature (see
Sanford and Garrod 1981, Marslen-Wilson et al. 1982, Ariel 1985, inter alia),
and will simply be assumed. Thus, depth of storage in memory is relevant
when speaker uses a 'new' NP, evoking a representation not referred to
previously in the current discourse. Speaker must then distinguish between

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representations entered into storage many years ago, versus information

stored just a few hours ago, as well as topics dear to the addressee versus ones
he tends to forget about, etc. Of course, infinitely many intermediate statuses
For "old' NPs, evoking a representation already introduced into the discourse, the distance between the last mention of the antecedent and the
current NP form evoking the same representation has been found to be
crucial. This usually boils down to matters of recency, i.e., later mentions are
more accessible than earlier ones (cf. material mentioned in the discourse five
paragraphs away with material mentioned in the last sentence). However,
findings show that it is not merely physical distance as measured by number
of words or clauses which counts. Rather, representations are close or distant
according as they are embedded within the same frame, paragraph, etc. I call
this the unity criterion.
In addition, two other features are relevant for NPs evoking either 'new' or
'old' antecedents. The extent to which an antecedent is prominent makes it a
more or a less available representation. Thus, discourse and sentence topics,
speaker, addressee, important people or things in addressee's life (spouse,
children), etc., are more easily retrievable than other representations. Related
to prominence is competition, namely, how many other antecedents can
potentially serve as antecedents for the said NP. The more competitors there
are, the less the specific antecedent intended by the speaker is uniquely
accessible to the addressee.

2.1. Empirical evidence

Subsequent mentions of referents in discourse are made to mental representations which are relatively more accessible. Once evoked, such memory
entities must remain activated, at least for a while. References to ~new'
entities, on the other hand, retrieve mental representations in deeper storage.
Hence, if an examination of first versus subsequent retrievals shows that
specific expressions favor specific contexts, our hypothesis is supported.
This is indeed the case, when we compare the occurrence of definite
descriptions and full proper names (first + last name) in discourse. Note how
the percentages in table l are practically reversed for the two expression
types, z
' As data I used fiction, short news items, editorials and popularized academic articles. For
fiction I used Kate Chaupin's "The story of one hour', as translated into Hebrew by R. Giora in
Noga 8, 1984. and the first half of Alice Walker's 'How did I get away with killing one of the
biggest lawyers in the state? It was easy', translated into Hebrew by R. Giora in Noga 1 !, 1985.
Short pews items were collected from Noga 12, 1986, and Maariv, Nov. 7, 1986. The popularized
academic pieces appeared in Zmanim. pp. 57, 96. The two editorial articles were taken from
Haaret-, Oct. 15, 1986.


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Table I
Names and definite descriptions in first vs. subsequent mentions.

Definite descriptions
Full names

First mention

Subsequent mentions

180 = 33.8%
118 = 63.8%

353 = 66.2%
67 = 36.2%

A similar specialization is revealed when we compare long definite descriptions (more than two content words) versus short definite descriptions (one to
two content words), as can be seen in table 2.1
Table 2
Long and short definite descriptions in first vs. subsequent mentions.

Short definite :lescriptions

Long definite descriptions

First mention

Subsequent mentions

84 = 21.8%
96 = 65.3%

302 = 78.2%
51 = 34.7%

When we examine the occurrence of names as initial retrievers, a distinction

appears among name types. Table 3 shows a clear preference for full names
when a first mention is made. 2
Table 3
Name types in initial retrievals.
Full names

Last names

First names

135 = 85.2%

2 3 = 14.8%


In other words, in first evocation uses a distinction is drawn between names

and definite descriptions, between long and short definite descriptions and
between full, last and first names. That is, when the representation is not
highly accessible, speakers favor certain linguistic expressions over others
(names over definite descriptions, long definite descriptions over short definite
descriptions, full names over last names, last names over first names). The
ones favored, I claim, are markers of a relatively lower Accessibility.
To see the role of distance/recency note the findings in table 4, where all
references are non-initial. The expressions are all anaphoric here.
2 As data I used two articles from the supplement of Haaretz, Aug. 16, 1985, and a short-story,
'Ha-Kadish', H. Ben-Yehuda, in Y. Berlovich (ed.) Women's Stories, Tarmil, Israel.

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Table 4
Distribution of anaphoric expressions in text (popular contexts in bold face).

Definite description

Same S

Previous S

Same para.

Across para.

4 = 4.8%
4 = 2.8%

50 -- 59.5%
20 = 14.1%

75= 14.2%
17-- 20.2%
65 = 45.8%

24= 4.5%
13 = 15.5%
53 = 37.3%

The conclusions regarding the popular contexts (80%) of each expression are
that pronouns mostly occur within the closest distance (same or previous S),
demonstratives are concentrated in the intermediate distance (previous S,
same paragraph), and definite descriptions occur at the furthest contexts (same
and across paragraph boundary). 3 Under the proposal at hand, they will be
classified as low, intermediate and high Accessibility markers respectively.
I have suggested that unity (how related the unit in which the antecedent
occurs is to the unit the anaphor is in) is also relevant when current
Accessibility is determined. Findings supporting the unity criterion discuss the
crucial role of same versus different points of view, worlds or frames.
Anderson et al.'s (1983) experiments are characteristic in this respect. They
found that referring to a frame-dependent entity (an entertainer in a children's
birthday party) is easier when the discourse is still embedded in the same
frame. Thus, when they compared reading times of the same anaphoric
expression referfng to the same antecedent when ~till withi~ ;.he birthday
party scene and outside it (five hours later), reading time of the now frameexternal antecedent was slower. Distance was, of course, kept constant.
Another result of the unity criterion is the distribution of pronouns versus
zeros in Chinese discourse, as discussed by Li and Thompson (1979). They
refer to degree of unity as degree of conjoinability, and what they found is
that pronouns, rather than zeros tend to occur in relatively independent
sentences (in the pragmatic sense). Zeros occur in the complementary context.
The following is one of their examples:

This Wang-Miani was gifted.

0i was not more than 20 years of age.
0i had already mastered ....
However, hei had a different personality ....

3 Two of the texts examined were fictional discourse: the opening section of a novel (E.H.
Young, The curate~ wife. London: Virago Press, 1934/1985, 7-13), and a short story (G. Paley,
"The pale pink roast', in Little disturbances qfman. London: Virago Press, 1956/1980, 43-52). For
non-fiction I chose 'Trouble on the set: An analysis of female characters on 1985 television
programs'. National Commission on Working Women: 1-12, and J.E. Tucker, Women in
Nineteenth Century Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, I--6.


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In other words, pronouns are lower Accessibility markers than zeros.

As mentioned above, antecedent prominence is also functional in facilitating retrievals. The results shown in table 4 were even more extreme once I
eliminated all expressions whose antecedents are discourse topics. Table 4 has
4.5% of the pronouns occurring across the paragraph boundary, but actually,
the great majority of these were discourse topics. Hence, once we discount
them: only 0.37% of all pronouns cross the paragraph boundary. No dramatic effect results when we do the same for definite descriptions: the percentage
remains 37%. In other words, it was the prominence of the antecedent, due to
its role as topic, which allowed the large distance between the antecedent and
the relatively high Accessibility marker - the pronoun.
Additional evidence comes from experimental research such as Purkiss
(1978), as reported in Sanford and Garrod (1981). Purkiss tested reading times
of sentences containing anaphoric references to entities previously mentioned
in topic versus non-topic status. Results showed that depending on the
distance between the antecedent and the anaphor, topic-referring sentences
took 11-14 seconds to process, while non-topic-referring sentences took 1317.5 seconds. This difference must be attributed to the difference in the ease of
retrieving topics versus non-topics.
Broadbent's (1973) findings using native speakers' judgments in effect
support the criterion of prominence. He notes a preference for the topic to be
chosen as the antecedent over other candidates. Thus, when presented with
the following referentially ambiguous sentence, subjects assigned the anaphoric relations as indicated in (2), where it is taken to be anaphoric to the topic
(feedpipe) and not to the nonotopic (chain):
(2) The feedpipei lubricates the chainj, and ih should be adjusted to leave a
gap half an inch between itself and the sprocket.
Prominence is also relevant in first mentions. Anderson et al. (1983), and
Clark, Schreuder and Buttrick (1983) found that physically salient objects
were preferred as antecedents.
Clancy (1980), who checked 20 English and 20 Japanese versions of the
Pear Story movie, can be cited in support of the claim that competition can
detract from the prominence, and hence the Accessibility of an antecedent.
Her conclusions for both languages are that when there are no intervening
NPs between the anaphor and the antecedent, 0 is preferred. When there is
one intervening NP, full NPs are more popular than zeros or pronouns. Last,
Os and pronouns gradually disappear when intervening NPs accumulate. After
five such intervening NPs, no pronouns or zeros occur.
The empirical evidence sketched in the last few paragraphs is only part of a
much more detailed analysis brought forth in previous work. Since discourse
references are not at the focus of the work here reported, the evidence cited in

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support of the Accessiblity theory has been quite brief. It pertains to names
(ar.d name types), definite descriptions (contrasting long versus short ones as
well), demonstratives, pronouns and zeros. In each case, a comparison of the
context where there is some preference for one expression over another shows
them to be different in the degree of Accessibility they signal. The reader is
referred to Ariel (1988, 1990) for further support for the role of Accessibility
theory in dictating appropriate choices among referring expressions in discourse. There, based on additional distributional findings drawn from a
variety of unrelated languages, I have established the following hierarchy of
Accessibility markers:
Full name + Modifier
Full name
Long definite description
Short definite description
Last name
First name
Distal demonstrative (+ Modifier)
Proximal demonstrative ( + Modifier)
Stressed pronouns + Gesture
Stressed pronouns
Unstressed pronouns

3. Coding Accessibility in language

The above scale of Accessibility, it is claimed, is by and large universal. We
should therefore now move to the second question posed, the coding question.
If we can diagnose a coding pattern in the arrangement of (3) above, we can
account for its universality. Indeed, I suggest that the arrangement in (3) is far
from accidental. Universally, three criteria are used in the linguistic codification process of the cognitive concept Megree of Accessiblity': informativity,
rigidity and attenuation. The more informative, the more rigid and the least
attenuated the form the lower Accessibility it marks, and vice versa.
The degree of informativity incorporated into the linguistic marker is
crucial for its role as an Accessibility marker, for the more lexical information
the marker provides the better it is suited for the retrieval of less accessible
material. Also, the more it can compensate for the lack of a unique antecedent, if such is the case. The emptier the marker is semantically, all it does is


M. Ariel / Accessibility

signal high Accessibility, since under such circumstances addressee is hardly in

need of guidance in identifying the intended antecedent (e.g., The Israeli
linguist vs. The linguist; This book vs. This).
The consequences of applying the informativity criterion are that the
following expressions are distinguished regarding the degree of Accessibility
they should be used for:

(4a) O vs. pronoun

(4b) Full demonstrative/definite description (this/the book) vs. bare demonstrative (this)
(4c) Full name vs. partial names (first/last name)
(4d) In general: x + modifier vs. x
However, still undistinguished are the following, since no apparent difference
in lexical content can be established:
(5a) Definite descriptions vs. full demonstratives
(5b) Bare demonstratives vs. pronouns (as in Hebrew, where both mark
gender and number)
(5c) Stressed vs. unstressed pronouns
(5d) Full names vs. definite descriptions
(5e) Last names vs. first names
Hence, two more criteria are needed. The first one is rigidity, namely, how
uniquely referring an expression is. Of course, this is context dependent, but
still, some markers are more 'rigid' than others, and to that extent the
criterion makes different predictions than the informativity criterion. Thus,
so-called uniquely referring expressions may be used to retrieve entities which
are of a relatively lower degree of Accessibility (e.g., Ellen Prince vs. The

The consequences of applying the rigidity criterion are the distinctions listed
in (6):

(6a) Proper Names vs. definite descriptions

(6b) Last names vs. first names (at least in the west, there is a larger variety of
the former)
(6c) 1st and 2nd person pronouns (speaker and addressee are predetermined)
vs. 3rd person pronouns (any grammatically appropriate antecedent
except for the above two)
The rest of the distinctions are achieved via the third criterion, attenuation.
Attenuation is close to Givrn's (1983) proposal concerning phonological size.
Again, there is a lot of overlap with the results achieved by the informativity

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criterion because, naturally, one tends to use more wording in order to be

more informative. However, even when length plays no role, less attenuated
forms tend to be used for lower Accessibility retrievals (e.g., stressed vs.
unstressed pronouns). Applying the criterion of attenuation creates the following distinctions:
(7a) Stressed vs. unstressed pronouns
(7b) In general: any forms which vary in length but not in content (United
States of America vs. US)
(7c) Deictics vs. pronouns (in Hebrew)
Note that the attenuation criterion is somewhat problematic. The reason is
that not only Accessibility determines attenuation. Markedness also determines degree of attenuation. Hence, definite descriptions, which are more
attenuated than full demonstratives, should have been used for higher Accessibility, but they are not. It is easy to motivate the attenuation of definite
descriptions in view of their high popularity (demonstratives are quite rare).
Thus, we are forced to say that there is some conventionality in the scale in
(3), which is irreducible to the three principles proposed. For the same reason,
Sperber and Wilson's (1986) Relevance principle and Levinson's (1985) Minimization principle cannot on their own account for preferences in choices
among referring expressions.
Another qualification which is called for is that the universal scale in (3) is
intended to characterize relative, but not absolute degrees of Accessibility. In
other words, differences among languages are not ruled out, since the size of
the slot on the scale allotted to each expression can vary. It is relative
Accessibility which is predicted to be constant across languages, not absolute
degrees of Accessibility. Thus, in different languages, pronouns, for example,
behave differently. What is constant is that they signal higher Accessibility
than demonstratives and lower Accessibility than zeros. Other differences
which do not refute the universality of (3) should be mentioned. First, a
language may simply lack some of the forms listed (a definiteness marker in
Slavic languages). Second, the markedness of forms varies across languages
(for Japanese, it is pronouns, but for English ~s are marked).

4. Sentence-level anaphora
Up till now, we have limited our discussion to discourse anaphora. However,
if ,Accessibility is a cognitive concept guiding choices among referring and
anaphoric expressions in discourse, it is only plausible to argue that it is also
functional for grammatical forms proper. Indeed, it is my belief that grammatical anaphora obeys Accessibility theory too. Note that such a thesis can be


M. Ariel / Accessibility

interpreted in stronger or weaker versions. One interpretation which I reject is

that Accessibility (or any cognitive/pragmatic) theory should replace the
grammatical theory, Binding in our case.'* Another interpretation which I
accept, but will not here try to argue for, is that the grammatical theory
(Binding) is a reflection of Accessibility theory (+arbitrary decisions on
freezing of principles).
I choose, for the time being, a third interpretation, which is the weakest,
assigning Accessibility theory a double function regarding grammatically
specified forms. First, Accessibility theory is responsible for constraining the
fo~,-mal options languages are allowed to grammaticalize. Also, Accessibility
theory should account for grammatical forms in their optional distributional
possibilities, the classical role relegated to pragmatic theories. If we can prove
these claims we will indeed be in a position to support the view that
grammatical anaphora and discourse anaphora both obey the same cognitive
constraints imposed by Acc~ ,sibility theory.
In order to argue that sentence-level expressions conform to Accessibility
theory we have to show that they too form a scale of Accessibility, and that
where the grammar allows for so-called free variation, choice is made by
taking into account the current degree of Accessibility of the representation to
the addressee. Also, the form-function relations, determining what forms are
specialized (either obligatorily or optionally) for which degree of Accessibility,
should again follow the same three coding criteria we argued for, namely,
informativity, rigidity, and attenuation. However, before we examine the
above claims, we should review the Avoid Pronoun principle, offered by
Government and Binding grammarians (see Chomsky 1981) to account for at
least some of the phenomena at hand.
4.1. The avoid pronoun principle

The initial data motivating the Avoid Pronoun principle were cases where
native speakers show preferences for zero forms when both a pronoun and a
zero are grammatical. Relevant examples with P R O and pro are presented
(8a) PRO: Maya wants 0/? for herself to win.
(8b) pro: 7ani/0 kamti meuxar ha - boker.
0 got up late
this morning.
I would like to argue that the Avoid Pronoun principle is redundant. Not
because I intend to dispute examples such as (8) above. I agree with the
judgments, but I find the principle as stated superfluous, even for the
, This is the approach adopted by Kuno in his recent book (Kuno 1987).

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distributional facts as they were taken to be. The optionality of the zero vs.
overt form coupled with any pragmatic theory, such as Kasher's (1976, 1982)
Rationality, Sperber and Wilson's (1986) Relevance or Levinson's (1985)
Minimization principle predict that whenever grammatically possible, the zero
form should be preferred. There is, therefore, no need for a special principle in
order to account for the zero choices. A problem does arise when pronouns
are preferred.
I claim that in fact, when the Avoid Pronoun seems to work it is because the
Accessibility associated witil the representation is extremely high, hence calling
for the use of a zero, an obviously attenuated form. Under such circumstances,
Accessibility theory, the pragmatic principles mentioned above and the Avoid
Pronoun principle all agree. The problem with the Avoid Pronoun principle
arises in those cases where it does not apply. Whereas Accessibility theory has
an explanation for the 'failure' to use the zero form, proponents of the Avoid
Pronoun principle offer no explanation. All they can offer is that such cases are
marked. Note, however, that ev'~ if this were the case, one still needs to explain
when and why marked forms are ever preferred over unmarked ones. Moreover, claiming that it is marked to prefer a pronoun over a zero form in a
language like English (Unlike Chinese, e.g.) is quite unmotivated.
The problem with the Avoid Pronoun principle (as well as the other theories,
when not mediated by Accesibility theory) is the prediction that preferences are
unidirectional (only zeros are favored over pronouns, never the reverse). This is
not true in actual discourse. The only reason why grammarians saw only one
side of the coin, namely, a preference for the higher Accessibility mark,,r, is ~he.:
they tend to concentrate on minimal units. No wonder speakers prefer higher
Accessibility markers when the unit involving both the antecedent and the
anaphor is the S domain, or even the more restricted, governing category
domain. Grammarians simply do not encounter examples where preferences for
lower Accessibility forms (to use my terminology) are at work.
Why, then, does the speaker bother to use a pronoun when it is redundant?
This is especially puzzling in cases, such as in Hebrew, where the choice
between an overt pronoun and a zero form entails no differences in the
information supplied on the referent intended by the speaker (this is so
because the verb often incorporates the same gender number and person
distinctions as the pronominal system). I suggest that Accessibility theory can
provide an account for this phenomenon. Relying on examples from Hebrew,
it will be shown that once the Accessibility of a given antecedent is seen as
relatively low, speaker prefers to use the relatively lower Accessibility marker,
a pronoun in this case. s
-" Another disadvantage of the Avoid Pronoun principle is that it is too specific. The same
regularity responsible for C-pronoun distributions is responsible for other forms: intermediate
pronominal forms (to be discussed below), 1 vs. reflexives, pronouns vs. reflexives, pronouns vs.
deicties, etc.


M. Ariel/Accessibility

4.2. An analysis of zero subjects under accessibility theory

My classification for zero subjects in tensed clauses (I will not refer to nontensed clauses at all here) is different from the one currently assumed in the
GB literature. GB proponents distinguish between pro's and zero topics, and
propose an account only for pro's. The reason is that so-called zero topics
require a pragmatic account anyway. From the point of view of Accessibility
theory, whose concern is with non-grammatical patterns of distribution, there
is no crucial difference between the two grammatical phenomena. Both, I
claim, are subject to Accessibility theory.
However, I too distinguish between various empty subject slots. Although
in the relevant examples to be discussed below the subject slot is empty, the
sentences differ in that some may have agreement markers which can identify
the referent of the subject. The relevant Accessibility marker is, therefore, not
the zero subject, but rather, the type of the agreement marker. Agreement
markers vary both across and within langaage systems.
Let us examine the predictions of Accessibility theory, regarding the various
Agreement markers. As will be remembered, Accessibility theory dictates a
coding principle which assigns relative degrees of Accessibility to various
forms. It also dictates the actual distribution of such expressions, relying on
the psycholinguistic factors identified as affecting degree of Accessibility.
Applying the Accessibility'coding principles (informativity, rigidity and attenuation), we expect the f~llowing scale:

'True' 0
(no agreement at all, as in Chinese)
'Poor' AGR (gender and number inflection, but no person marker, as
in Hebrew present tense)
'Rich' AGR ('Italian' inflection, where gender, number and person
are marked).

Although the mere existence of tense inflections does not guarantee zero
subject optionality (e.g., French), given the possibility to have empty subjects,
we should expect its distribution to obey Accessibility theory. Based on the
scale in (9), we derive the following universal Constraint on Distribution:
(10) The grammar is not expected to allow zero subjects with higher but not
lower Accessibility markers.
In other words, I predict that no language allows zero subjects with no
inflection whatsoever, but does not allow zero subjects to occur when AGR is
partially or fidly informative.
Factors related to the nature of the antecedent also play a role in sentencelevel anaphora. Since antecedent prominence facilitates its being a preferred

M. Ariel / Accessibility


antecedent, the prediction is that prominent antecedents tend to be referred to

using relatively higher Accessibility markers. Prominent antecedents within
the S boundary may be subjects, topics, humans, speaker and addressee. The
derived universal is:
(! !) No language is predicted to allow the use of a high Accessibility marker
with an 'inferior' antecedent, while grammatically disallowing its use
with a prominent antecedent.
Thus, preferences for subjects over objects in anaphoric interpretations are
seen as preferences for the more accessible antecedent. Similarly, the impossibility (in some languages) of using an empty pronoun for 3rd person referents,
when it is allowed for 1st and 2nd person referents follows from the fact that
I st and 2nd person referents constitute more accessible representations than
those of 3rd person referents.
Last, factors related to the nature of the relation between the antecedent
and the anaphor (the unity criterion) are also functional in sentence anaphora.
The relevant universal is listed below:

(12) Given a difference in distance or in the degree of cohesion between the

units involved (the one containing the antecedent and the one containing
the anaphor) - e.g. embedding vs. conjoining - we should expect no
language to allow the use of the higher Accessibility marker in the less
cohesive/more distant case but not in the more cohesive/closer case.
Thus, no language is expected to allow O's between two conjoined S's, but not
between a matrix and its embedded clause, for example. In the next section we
focus on Hebrew, for which we will substantiate the above claims.
4.3. Hebrew: A test case for accessibility theory
Hebrew has a variety of forms relevant to the discussion at hand: full
pronouns, cliticized pronouns, 'pronominal' AGR (i.e., as informative as a
pronoun), 'anaphoric' AGR (where the verb marks number and gender only)
and 'degenerate' AGR (partially ambiguous forms). In addition, I have found
distributional differences among: 1st and 2nd person references vs. 3rd person
references and past tense vs. future tense inflections. I suggest that all the
relevant distinctions can be seen as following from the coding principle of
Accessibility theory. We proceed to classify the relevant forms according to
Accessibility theory.
Applying the informativity criterion, we can divide the forms as in table 5.
The forms on the left-hand side contain more information about the antecedent, incorporating person, gender and number markers.

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Table 5
The effect of informativity.

INFORMATIVE (+ person gender number)

'POOR' (+ gender & number, -person)

Full pronouns (Ist, 2rid, 3rd)

Cliticized pronouns (same)
"Pronominal' AGR (Ist & 2nd person
past and future)

'Anaphoric' AGR (3rd person)

'Degenerate' AGR (present tense)

Applying the rigidity criterion, we can distinguish the two "poor' expressions:
3rd person ('anaphoric' AGR) versus present tense AGR. While in the former
person is not marked, it is still uniquely identified. The latter is truly
ambiguous. (I 3) has the relevant examples:
(13a) 0 halax; 0 halxa
~,ent-he went-she

(13b) 0

go-I (masc.)/you (masc.)/he go-I(fem.)/you(fem.)/she

In addition, some of the forms on the left-hand side of table 5 can be

distinguished fiom on~ another: ist and 2nd person pronouns (and cliticized prounouns) refer to uniquely determined referents (speaker and
addressee), while 3rd person pronouns (and cliticized pronouns) refer to
any referent compatible with the grammatical constraints. The differences
to be noted below between ~) subject distribution in past versus future
inflections is to be accounted for by reference to the transparency of past
tense person inflectior.s. In fact these are shortened pronouns (lacking only
the initial vowel [a] (eg., ata, -ta 'you-masc.'). Person markers in future
tense inflections are opaque, and sometimes discontinuous. Although they
too are probably derived from pronouns, the pronouns are no longer
identifiable. 6
Finally, applying attenuation, we get the following scale:
(14) Full Pronouns > Cliticized Pronouns > 'Pronominal' AGR (Ist and
2nd person in future and past tenses)
We thus end up with the following Accessibility hierarchy for Hebrew:

The reason is that historically, future tense inflectioas by far pr~ate past tense inflections.

M. Ariel / Accessibility


( 15 Accessibility Hierarchy:
Full pronoun (Ist > 2nd > 3rd)
Cliticized pronoun (Ist > 2nd > 3rd)
Past tense person inflection (ist > 2nd)
Future tense person inflection (lst > 2nd)
Third person inflection (Past > Future)
'Degenerate' AGR (Present tense AGR)
I shall next present evidence in support of the Accessibility Hierarchy in (15).
The evidence will be of two types: intuitions concerning acceptability judgments, and patterns of distribution in actual discourse. We start with judgments concerning sentences in the abstract.
A split antecedent is an inferior antecedent. It is not as salient as a single
antecedent. Indeed, Borer (1985) finds that while an 'anaphoric' A G R (3rd
person inflection) can in general be anaphoric across S boundaries (16a),
when the antecedent is a split one (16b) the sentence is unacceptable ((16) and
(I 7) are Borer's examples and judgments):
(16a) Talila~ amra le-itamaq ~e- Om
Talila said to-ltamar that [she/he] succeeded.

(16b) *Talilai
amra le-itamarj ~e- Oi+j hiclixu.
Talila [did] said to-Itamar that [they] succeeded.
Note, however, that an anaphoric reference to a split antecedent is possible
with a lower Accessibility marker (a 'pronominal' A G R - 1st or 2nd person
(17) Talilai Io sipra lexaj ~,e- O ~ . j
huzmantem la-mesiba.
Talila not tell you that [she&you] were-invited to-the party.
This is precisely the prediction of Accessibility theory. A lower Accessibility
marker can be anaphoric ~o a relatively less accessible antecedent for it signals
to the addressee that the antecedent is less than highly accessible.
That the ban on a link between an 'anaphoric' A G R and split antecedents
is nm gra~'mnatic:01 can be seen from the following example. Once we raise the
Accessibility .of the split antecedent by tightening the unity of the two clauses,
anaphoric AGR can be anaphoric to the inferior split antecedent (it is the
verbs of saying which block the anaphoric relation in the examples from
Borer, I claim):

M. Ariel / Accessibility


maamaro ha-guvenisti k~e(18a) Noga bikra
Noga criticized ACC Simon about his article chauvinistic when
nasu li-yrugalaim.
[they] went to Jerusalem.

(18b) Noga bik~a mi-gimon

ge-ha-paam O
Noga asked from Simon that this time [they] will-leave
for-the party on time.

Note that a strong semantic connection enables us to use an anaphoric A G R

(3rd person past and future inflections) across conjoined S's (19a&b), a link
which is forbidden under Borer's grammatical analysis. To see that it is the
semantic/pragmatic connection which enables such crossing of conjunctions,
contrast a & b with the unacceptable c:
im-fimon, u- le-daati
(19a) Hayom noga hitxila
Today Noga made a pass at Simon, and to my mind tomorrow
[she] will-make-a pass at David.
ha-mizvada be-itiyut, ve-laxen
(19b) Noga arza
Noga packed ACC her suitcase slowly, and therefore now
le-caara ha-rav,
la-ruc ie-taxanat ha-rakevet.
much to her chagrin, [she] will-have to run to the train-station.
(19c) ??Noga dibra im fimon memu~axot ve- 0
Noga spoke with Simon a lot,
and [he/she] will
lisxov et
ha-mizvada le-taxanat ha-rakevet
her/him carry ACC the suitcase to the train- Station
Moreover, in a highly cohesive clausal connection, split antecedent anaphora
is also possible across conjuncts (20a) using an 'anaphoric' AGR. In order to
see that such a link across a conjunction is allowed only because of the high
connectivity in (20a), contrast (20a) with (20b), where no strong semantic
connection exists. The latter is indeed unacceptable:
(20a) Rak lifney xode~, noga hitxatna
im gimon, u- xvar
Only a month ago Noga got-married with Simon, and- already
ba-shavua ge-avar 0
week [they] got-divorced.
(20b) * Noga dibra im gimon yafe, ve-0
yisxavu yaxad et
Noga spoke with Simon nicely, and [they] will-carry together ,~ CC
ha-mizvada ha-kw:da le-taxanat ha-rakevet.
the heavy suitcase to the train-station

M. Ariel / Accessibility


Finally, as rightly observed by Borer (1985), both a 'Degenerate' AGR

(present tense inflection) and an "anaphoric' AGR (3rd person past & future
inflections) cannot refer deictically:
(21a) *0/ani/at/hi
(21b) *0/hi raata
she saw

seret ~,alog peamim.
see every movie three times.
kol seret g,aio~, peamim.
every movie three times.

Note that in line with Accessibility theory, 'Pronominal' AGR (lst and 2rid
person future and past inflections), which is a lower Accessibility marker, is
allowed under such circumstances:
(21c) 0
raiti/rait/ere/tiri kol seret galog peamim.
I/you saw/will see
every movie three times.
We now move to supporting evidence which comes from actual data. The
difference in Accessibility between a full versus a cliticized pronoun (marked
by an apostrophe) can be seen in (22). In (22a), the topic is referred to using a
cliticized pronoun (lst person in this case), but when the discourse topic (or
frame) shifts, speaker changes to a full pronoun. In (22b), we see a similar
phenomenon with a third person referent. Speaker starts by contrasting a
name (a low Accessibility marker) for the non-topic versus a full pronoun for
the topic, and later, a full pronoun serves to refer to the accessible though
non-topic entity (Nubar=j), while a cliticized pronoun is used for the
accessible entity which is also the topic (indexed by i): 7
oto be-yom sheni, an' 1o
yodea ...
(22a) Anixogev ... an' oci
I think ... I' will print it on Monday, I' don't know ...
[Change of Discourse Topic]: ani xogev ge-ulay
ani ectarex
I think that maybe I will-have
li-nsoa le-london be-yore ~,eni.
to go to London on Monday.
(22b) Hul diber imnubarj, nubarj amar ... nubarj haya ... h'l pashut diber
He spoke to Nubar. Nubar said ... Nubar was ... He'simply spoke
hu e xasav kge huj ...
to-him, he thought when he ...
The following examples show the sensitivity of the 0/pronoun choice to
questions of unity. (23a) and (23b) are practically a minimal pair, taken from
the same story. All along the story, the narrator is extremely accessible. She
'The data for spoken Hebrew here and elsewhere in this paper is based on a taped kitchen
conversation between wife and husband (Jan. 8, 1987).


M. Ariel / Accessibility

constitutes the discourse topic. This is why the translator mostly chose O's for
the original English L The interesting difference is the one between the
underlined 0 vs. pronoun. In both cases, the previous discourse topic is the
mother, rather than the narrator. Still, in (23a) she resumes talking about
herself using a 0. In (23b), a full pronoun is used for the same referent.
Neither distance nor topicality can explain the difference. I suggest the reason
is the sharp shift in the nature of the flow of events which dictates the
different strategy: s
le- heanes.
(23a) Ze haya davar Eel ma bexax bi~vil yalda o
It was nothing
for (a) girl or (a) woman to get raped.
ani acmi neenasti, k~e- 0 hayiti bat ~tem esre.
I myself was raped, when [I] was twelve years old
ima af paam 1o yadaa, u- 0 meolam 1o siparti le-iL (Walker 1985)
Mama never knew,
and [I] never
told anybody.
(23b) Hu pagut him~ix le-nasot le-alec oti la-cet ito,
He just kept trying to make me go
with-him, and sometimes,
mi-tox hergel, ani xogevet, 0 halaxti ito.
asa ma ~e
out of habit, I guess, [I] went with-him. My body did what (it)
~'alam ~e
yaase, ve- ima
meta. ve-ani haragti
was-being-paid to do. And Mother died. And I killed
buba. (Walker 1985)
ACC Bubba.
I found that examples like these are statistically significant. In my data for
spoken Hebrew, only 17.5% of the past tense verbs were accompanied by
overt pronouns. All of them are of the (b) type, i.e., manifesting a relatively
low unity between antecedent and anaphor clauses.
The difference between past versus future person inflections is mainly
revealed in the frequency of allowing 0 subjects. In spoken Hebrew, 82.5% of
the cases had a 0 rather than a 1st or 2nd person pronoun in past tense
inflections No zeros occurred in future inflections. In literary Hebrew, the
gap is smaller: 90% ~'s in past, 76.5% in future. This is not a grammatical
'finding', but the large gap in popularity does mean that speakers distinguish
between past arid future inflections.
Even 'anaphoric' AG R (3rd person past/future inflection) (in 24a)
and a 'degenerate' A G R (present tense) (24b, c,d) can refer extrasententially, provided the antecedent is highly salient, a topic in the following

s See notes I and 3 and for precise references of written Hebrew examples, i have specified the
author's name at the end of each example.

M. Ariel / Accessibility


(24a) Hu mitxaten,
buba [el baxura, g
hayta gam yaxad ito.., beten
He is marrying. A darling girl.
[she] was there with him.., little
gtuxa-- ~ ulay bat 22, aval niret bat 17. (Paley !980).
tummy-- [she] must be 22, but looks seventeen.
(24b) Ba-zman ha-axaron ani mitoreret be-~eva, ani menasa li-~,on.
I wakc-up at seven. I try
to sleep.
be-dere-klal ~ mityae~et. (Spoken Hebrew).
[I] give up
af paam io moce kan klum
ii-~tot ...
[I] Never
find here anything to drink ...
(Literary Hebrew) (Paley 1980)
(24d) Kogadol
~uv ha-merxak beynehem.
So large [is] again the distance between them. [They] speak
be-milim teomot u-mexavnim li-dvarim axerim.
compatible words and meaa
different things.
(Literary Hebrew) (Savion Liebrecht, Applesfrom the Desert, !986; TelAviv: Sifriyat Ha-Poalim)
The above have been a selection of examples aimed at showing that O
pronoun choices are actually choices among a richer variety of forms, each
specialized for a different degree of Accessibility, which dictates its distribution. More data can be found in Ariel (1990), where the evidence regarding
sentence-level anaphora is not limited to Hebrew, nor to O/pro choices.
Regarding the latter, the claim is that Chinese zero subjects, for example, are
not quite as free as is often assumed. For grammarians it is of the utmost
importance that Chinese O's can refer extra-textually That feature immediately turns (some) O's into an extra-grammatical phenomenon, not to be
handled by the grammar. However, the mere fact that such O's can refer
deictically does not mean that they are completely free. Actually they too are
heavily restricted - to highly salient objects from the discourse setting, to
topics, speaker or addressee. As such, they are not as different from the
Hebrew O's. Even English, I would claim, is not as different from Chinese as
grammarians make it out to be (on this point). English and Chinese allow O's
under the same circumstances, except that in English O's are marked. The
following shows that English too allows extra-textual references by 0:
(25) Careful! 0 contains Methanol

(from Sadock 1974)

5. In conclusion

I have argued that the Accessibility of representations to addressees is a

cognitive status taken into account by speakers. In fact, context-retrieving


M. Ariel / Accessibility

expressions, definite NPs among them, are expressions each specialized for a
specific degree of memory Accessibility. Accessibility, therefore, is not only a
cognitive concept. It is a linguistic feature. In section 3, I proposed that the
codification of the cognitive concept into linguistic form is mediated for the
large part (excluding markedness considerations) by three criteria: informativity, rigidity and attenuation. Although a universal scale of Accessibility is
predicted, each language carves its particular scale, excluding those expressions it has no correlates for, and establishing preferred (unmarked) forms
versus marginal (marked) forms.
Section 2 provided some examples from discourse anaphora. Section 4 was
devoted to arguing that the scale of Accessibility marking is essential not only
for discourse anaphora. Sentential anaphora obeys Accessibility theory too. I
have mainly concentrated on optional choices regarding both discourse and
sentential anaphora, arguing that speakers make consistent choices in their
anaphoric expressions, favoring relatively higher Accessibility markers when
anteceder, t is highly available (when it is a topic, or when the anaphor appears
in a unit highly connected to the ore where the anteceden~ occurred, etc.).
The only strictly grammatical poJ nt I made was the proposal that languages
are restricted in how 'liberal' their options regarding a given Accessibility
marker can be: a language can ne eer license the use of a high Accessibility
marker in a context where it does not license the use of a lower Accessibility
marker. Hebrew, I have argued, o3eys this restriction. 'Degenerate' AGR is
more restricted in occurrence thar 'anaphoric' Agr which is, in turn, more
restricted than 'pronominal' AGR. However, a qualification is here in order:
being more restricted does not necessarily mean occurring less frequently! The
more heavily-defined context may 'be quite frequent, at least in some genres.
I have argued that Accessibility, an obviously cognitive concept, has a
linguistic correlate. Can this claim leave the grammar-pragmatics borderline
intact? I believe it can, if we adopt Kasher's (1976, 1982) and Sperber and
Wilson's (1986) view of pragmatics. According to this view, a phenomenon is
pragmatic if it is not language-specific. Grice's (1975) 'be cooperative', Kasher's (1976, 1982) 'be rational', 'be polite', and Sperber and Wiison's (1986)
'be relevant' are general behavior patterns.
Accessibility conventions, on the other hand, are language-specific in that they
are formulated over specific linguistic expressions ,~nd are therefore part and
parcel of the grammar. Under one version of the Chomskyan view, where,
linguistic vs. non-linguistic, sentence vs. discourse and licensing principles vs.
principles governing optional choices all boil down to one and the same
distinction, that of grammar vs. pragmatics, Accessibility theory does conflate
the two. However, Asa Kasher (personal communication) has drawn my
attention to a few passages in Chomsky's writings where Chomsky does seem
to take the former position regarding the grammar-pragmatics division of
labor. Following Chomsky, Kasher (1991) proposes to distinguish between

M. Ariel / Accessibility


general pragmatics and linguistic pragmatics, a component within the grammar. Accessibility theory, then, belongs in linguistic pragmatics.

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