In the following sentence:
Dogs hate cats as they are naughty.
does the pronoun "they" refer to dogs or cats? In other words, who is naughty here?
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Syntax determines some places in which a particular noun phrase can not be the antecedent of a pronoun, but other than those absolute prohibitions, the choice of antecedent is determined by discourse properties, although there are definite preferences depending on the sentences involved and the context. (I'm using 'antecedent' here loosely to mean "noun phrase upon which the pronoun depends" rather than literally "noun phrase which precedes the pronoun".)
Here are some examples:
Explanation of the examples:
All of the impossible cases here cannot be improved with discourse or context because there are syntactic principles which disallow the antecedent relation. The other cases will be heavily dependent on context/discourse.
For example, (1) is fairly neutral with no context, but if we know that John is Bill's coach then the choice of Bill becomes more prominent. Conversely if we know that both John and Bill are competing in the same race, we will likely prefer John as the antecedent.
In (5) our preference without other context is for John to be the antecedent, but context can again push us to Bill, for example if the next sentence is "The present was found unopened in his desk after the funeral."
In (7) only context will decide. There is no rule to decide as far as I can tell.
William Cantrall discovered that sometimes you can disambiguate such examples by making the pitch contours of antecedent and pronoun agree. In the following, I use strings of single digits for pitch contours: 1 for highest pitch, 2 for next highest, and so on.
Dogs hate cats as they are naughty. (they=cats)
Dogs hate cats as they are naughty. (they=dogs)
Cantrall ("Pitch, Stress, and Grammatical Relations", p. 12, CLS 5) has better examples, but see if you agree with the above.