Deriving the evidence asymmetry in positive polar questions


  • Kyle Rawlins Johns Hopkins University



This paper explores a famous puzzle about English positive polar questions introduced by Buring and Gunlogson 2000: while in many contexts they seem to indicate nothing whatsoever about what the speaker takes for granted or thinks likely, in contexts that provide evidence against the content proposition of the question, they are infelicitous. This pattern, which I term the "evidence asymmetry", has been particularly troubling for standard accounts of polar questions that treat the positive and negative answers on par with each other. However, given that polar questions are felicitous in neutral contexts, it doesn't have an easy solution: polar questions in general don't seem to place constraints on evidence or context. I propose that polar questions have a fairly weak presupposition requiring just the content alternative to be possible (but say nothing about its negation), and (building on Trinh 2014) that this together with Maximize Presupposition-based reasoning about competitor questions (specifically"or not" alternative questions) can derive the evidence asymmetry. This account does not require the covert evidential marker of Trinh 2014, and essentially proposes that the evidence asymmetry follows from norms for English polar questions.