Imprecision is pragmatic: Evidence from referential processing

Timothy Leffel, Ming Xiang, Christopher Kennedy


Gradable adjectives (GAs) provide an ideal domain for evaluating theories of the interface betwen semantic interpretation and context: relative and absolute GAs are both context dependent, but absolute adjectives can have precise meanings in a way that relative adjectives cannot. We provide processing evidence for the hypothesis that imprecision in absolute adjectives is a pragmatic phenomenon: absolute thresholds are semantically scalar endpoints, and imprecise uses are derived by a global pragmatic threshold, which specifies how much deviation from literal meaning is pragmatically ignorable in a context (see e.g. Lasersohn 1999). The evidence comes from a set of visual world eye-tracking experiments adapted from the design of Sedivy, Tanenhaus, Chambers & Carlson (1999) and Aparicio, Xiang & Kennedy (2015). We measured the time-course of reference resolution in phrases of the form the Adj Noun while varying whether Adj is relative or absolute, as well as the degree to which the intended referent (target) and a competing object exemplified Adj. We found a contrast-based processing advantage for absolute GAs when the target exemplified Adj imprecisely but the competitor exemplified Adj precisely. However, this advantage was found to be sensitive to the relative/absolute distinction, as well as to the degree to which objects in the display exemplified the relevant scalar property. Collectively, our results provide evidence for a difference in the mental processes underlying relative versus absolute threshold fixing, which we argue is best modeled by a pragmatic theory of imprecision.

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