Giving Good Directions: Order of Mention Reflects Visual Salience

Alasdair D F Clarke, Micha Elsner, Hannah Rohde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)


In complex stimuli, there are many different possible ways to refer to a specified target. Previous studies have shown that when people are faced with such a task, the content of their referring expression reflects visual properties such as size, salience, and clutter. Here, we extend these findings and present evidence that (i) the influence of visual perception on sentence construction goes beyond content selection and in part determines the order in which different objects are mentioned and (ii) order of mention influences comprehension. Study 1 (a corpus study of reference productions) shows that when a speaker uses a relational description to mention a salient object, that object is treated as being in the common ground and is more likely to be mentioned first. Study 2 (a visual search study) asks participants to listen to referring expressions and find the specified target; in keeping with the above result, we find that search for easy-to-find targets is faster when the target is mentioned first, while search for harder-to-find targets is facilitated by mentioning the target later, after a landmark in a relational description. Our findings show that seemingly low-level and disparate mental "modules" like perception and sentence planning interact at a high level and in task-dependent ways.

Original languageEnglish
Article number01793
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Early online date9 Dec 2015
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2015

Bibliographical note

Date of Acceptance: 06/11/2015

The open access publication of this work was generously supported by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.


  • referring expressions
  • visual searc
  • visual salience


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