Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Eszter Ronai (University of Chicago)

Title: Quantifying semantic and pragmatic effects on scalar diversity

Abstract: Scalar inference (SI), the process by which we systematically infer meanings stronger than what was explicitly said, has long been a central topic of investigation in semantics-pragmatics. A recent experimental finding that has generated interest is scalar diversity: that the robustness of SI calculation varies across lexical scales (i.a., van Tiel, et al., 2016). For instance, the SI in (1) is much more likely to arise than the one in (2).

  • (1) Mary ate some of the cookies. —> SI: Mary didn’t eat all of the cookies.
  • (2) The movie is good. —> SI: The movie is not excellent.

In this talk, I will first present a proposal to more rigorously quantify the observed variation across scales, using relative entropy. I will then turn to the question of how factors independent of scalar diversity can make SI calculation both more likely and more uniform. Specifically, I will look at the role of discourse context, as in (3), and the role of semantic exhaustification with the focus particle only, as in (4).

  • (3) A: Did Mary eat all of the cookies?
  • (3) B: She ate some of the cookies.
  • (4) Mary ate only some of the cookies.

I will show that a supportive discourse context and overt exhaustification with only both increase inference rates and reduce variation across scales, with the effect of only being stronger. However, there still remains a lot of scalar diversity; only when we combine context with semantic exhaustification do we find uniformity across lexical scales.


Seminars are organised by the meaning and grammar research group.

Meaning and grammar research group

If you'd like more information on dates and venues this semester, or if you'd like to present, please email Vilde Reksnes, or subscribe to our mailing list.

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May 10 2022 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2022-05-10: Quantifying semantic and pragmatic effects on scalar diversity

Room 7.01, Dugald Stewart Building, 3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD