Corpus evidence for the role of world knowledge in ambiguity reduction: Using high positive expectations to inform quantifier scope


  • Noa Attali University of California, Irvine
  • Lisa S. Pearl University of California, Irvine
  • Gregory Scontras University of California, Irvine



scope ambiguity, universal quantifiers, negation, pragmatics, computational models, corpus linguistics, psycholinguistics


Every-negation utterances (e.g., Every vote doesn’t count) are ambiguous between a surface scope interpretation (e.g., No vote counts) and an inverse scope interpretation (e.g., Not all votes count). Investigations into the interpretation of these utterances have found variation: child and adult interpretations diverge (e.g., Musolino 1999) and adult interpretations of specific constructions show considerable disagreement (Carden 1973, Heringer 1970, Attali et al. 2021). Can we concretely identify factors to explain some of this variation and predict tendencies in individual interpretations? Here we show that a type of expectation about the world (which we call a high positive expectation), which can surface in the linguistic contexts of every-negation utterances, predicts experimental preferences for the inverse scope interpretation of different every-negation utterances. These findings suggest that (1) world knowledge, as set up in a linguistic context, helps to effectively reduce the ambiguity of potentiallyambiguous utterances for listeners, and (2) given that high positive expectations are a kind of affirmative context, negation use is felicitous in affirmative contexts (e.g., Wason 1961).