Listeners use descriptive contrast to disambiguate novel referents and make inferences about novel categories


  • Claire Bergey University of Chicago
  • Daniel Yurovsky Carnegie Mellon University



pragmatics, reference, concept learning, word learning, description, contrastive inference


In the face of unfamiliar language or objects, description is one cue people can use to learn about both. Beyond narrowing potential referents to those that match a descriptor, listeners could infer that a described object is one that contrasts with other relevant objects of the same type (e.g., “The tall cup” contrasts with another, shorter cup). This contrast may be in relation to other objects present in the environment or to the referent’s category. In two experiments, we investigate whether listeners use descriptive contrast to resolve reference and make inferences about novel referents’ categories. While participants use size adjectives contrastively to guide novel referent choice, they do not reliably do so using color adjectives (Experiment 1). Their contrastive inferences go beyond the current referential context: participants use description to infer that a novel object is atypical of its category (Experiment 2). Overall, people are able to use descriptive contrast to resolve reference and make inferences about a novel object’s category, allowing them to infer new word meanings and learn about new categories’ feature distributions.