September 13, 2007

Scalar implicature in the funny papers

Recently, there's been some experimental work on the psychological development of scalar implicature. Thus Anna Papafragou and Julien Musolino ("Scalar implicatures: experiments at the semantic-pragmatics interface", Cognition 86, 253-282, 2003) worked with (the Greek version of) sentences like "Some/all of the horses jumped over the fence", "Two/three of the horses jumped over the fence", or "The girl started/finished making the puzzle", and found that:

[S]ubjects were presented with contexts which satisfied the semantic content of the stronger (i.e. more informative) terms on each scale (i.e. all, three and finish) but were described using the weaker terms of the scales (i.e. some, two, start). We found that, while adults overwhelmingly rejected these infelicitous descriptions, children almost never did so.

For their five-year-old subjects, they also found that "Children also differed from adults in that their rejection rate on the numerical scale was reliably higher than on the two other scales" -- but they didn't test 15-year-olds engaged in financial negotiations with their parents.

Papagragou and Musolino went on to do a second experiment to "test the hypothesis that children’s apparent inability to derive scalar implicatures may be due to the nature of the task and in particular children’s inability to infer the goals of the experimenter". They conclude that "children’s sensitivity to scalar implicature greatly improves once they are made aware of the goals of the task and provided with contexts which more readily invite the kinds of pragmatic inferences under investigation".

Today's cartoon suggests that adolescents' sensitivity to scalar implicature may decline when their own goals are strongly in conflict with the pragmatic inferences in question. In fact, I suspect that this is true for all of us.

[ Mark Logan writes:

Your post on the Zits comic reminded me of an episode from my grad school days. A friend who was somewhat frazzled from her math courses (and thoroughly indoctrinated in mathspeak where one has to follow very strict entailment) went to a hardware store in search of some kind of bolt. She brought an example, and said "I need five of these." The clerk said "I checked, and we have three of them." My friend responded, "Okay, but do you have five of them?" This supposedly went on for several rounds to the increasing exasperation of both sides. I still find it hard to believe that the clerk didn't say "only three" at some early stage, but whatever. In the same vein of mathematicians being reluctant to follow everyday implicature, this also reminds me that I want to make a cartoon featuring a mathematician ordering two distinct hotdogs.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 13, 2007 06:57 AM