The interpretation of questions in dialogue

A semantic framework for interpreting dialogue should provide an account of the content that is mutually accepted by its participants. The acceptance by one agent of another’s contribution crucially involves the theory of what that contribution means; A’s acceptance of B’s contribution means that the content of B’s contribution must be integrated into A’s extant commitments.1 For assertions, traditionally assumed to express a proposition formalised as a set of possible worlds, it was clear how the integration should go: acceptance meant intersecting the newly accepted proposition with the set of worlds representing the content of the agent’s prior commitments. Dynamic semantics (e.g., Asher (1989)) refined this picture by replacing intersection with the operation of dynamic update. The way to treat the negative counterpart of acceptance—namely, rejection—is also clear in principle: A s rejection of B’s assertion means that the negation of the content of B’s contribution should be integrated with the content of A’s prior commitments. However, acceptance and rejection don’t just happen with assertions. These speech acts can happen with questions as well. That is, an agent can choose to address the issues raised by the questioner; he can also choose to reject them. The explicit acceptance of a question can be conveyed by providing a direct answer or by an explicit admittance that one doesn’t know an answer; explicit rejection by uttering I won’t answer.
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