Understanding referential expressions in context: Use of common ground by children and adolescents with mental retardation

Leonard J Abbeduto, Katherine Short-Meyerson, Glenis Benson, Joanna Dolish, Michelle Weissman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Listeners interpret utterances against the common ground, or network of presuppositions shared with the speaker. The first purpose of the study was to determine whether individuals with mental retardation use the major sources of common ground (i.e., physical copresence, linguistic copresence, and community membership) to resolve referential ambiguity. The second purpose was to determine whether they seek confirmation of their referent choices in accordance with the certainty of interpretation afforded by the common ground. The third purpose was to determine whether they signal noncomprehension when faced with ambiguity and common ground that is not informative. The final purpose was to evaluate the relationship between within-group variability in common ground use and measures of nonverbal cognition, receptive and expressive language, and social cognition. Participants were school-age individuals with mental retardation and typically developing children matched to them on nonverbal MA. Common ground use was examined in a role-playing task in which the participant responded to ambiguous utterances. Common ground was manipulated within participants. We determined whether referent selections were appropriate for the common ground, whether they were accompanied by confirmation requests, and whether noncomprehension was signaled. Both groups used all sources of common ground to resolve referential ambiguity at better than chance levels but were less successful in using community membership. Both groups also requested confirmation of their referent choices most often when the common ground was based on community membership. Both groups signaled noncomprehension when the common ground was not informative. Different aspects of common ground use were related to different predictors for the group with mental retardation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1348-1362
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1998
Externally publishedYes


  • Comprehension
  • Language disorders
  • Mental retardation
  • Pragmatics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Rehabilitation
  • Health Professions(all)
  • Linguistics and Language


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