Referent finding in Zits

Today’s Zits features Jeremy, his buddy Hector, and his dad:

In panel 1, Jeremy introduces two entities into the discourse: (E1) the dead squirrel and (E2) the engine of the van that Jeremy and Hector share.

The in panel 2 come two anaphoric elements: (A1) the definite pronoun it from Jeremy’s dad and (A2) the indefinite pronoun one from Jeremy. In principle, (A1) could pick out either (E1) or (E2) as its referent, but on the grounds of real-world plausibility, (E1) is incredibly unlikely (dead squirrel running?), so (E2) it is.

(A2) could also in principle pick out either (E1) or (E2), but here things get complicated; remember that this is a cartoon.

First, block the dad out of panel 2. Is Jeremy saying that he and Hector need a new engine (E2) or a new squirrel (E1)? Again, the squirrel referent is unlikely, but it’s just silly, rather than preposterous.

Now add the dad back. His it picks out the engine (E2), so (E2) is now topical in the discourse, reinforcing (E2) as the referent for Jeremy’s one.

But Hector takes the other route, suggesting he believes (absurdly) that the squirrel was somehow essential to the running of the engine, so they need a new one (which could be attracted by nuts).

And then you realize that we don’t know which referent Jeremy has in mind in panel 2.

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