Symmetric alternatives and semantic uncertainty modulate scalar inference

AbstractScalar inferences are commonly assumed to involve both literal semantic interpretation and social cognitive reasoning. However, the precise way to characterize listeners’ representation of context - including the space of possible utterance alternatives as well as the space of possible conventional meanings associated with linguistic forms - is a matter of ongoing debate. We report a partial replication of a scalar inference priming study by Rees and Bott (2018), introducing a novel baseline condition against which to compare behavior across different priming treatments. We also investigate the effect of raising participants’ awareness of communicatively stronger alternatives that explicitly encode an exhaustive meaning (e.g. 'some but not all' with respect to 'some'). Our results suggest that exhaustive alternatives (which are ‘symmetric’ to canonical alternatives) can modulate the availability and strength of scalar inferences, and that semantic uncertainty is an independent channel through which scalar inferences are modulated. We discuss implications for theories of pragmatic competence.

Return to previous page