Generics: Cognition and acquisition

Philosophical Review 117 (1):1-47 (2008)
Ducks lay eggs' is a true sentence, and `ducks are female' is a false one. Similarly, `mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus' is obviously true, whereas `mosquitoes don't carry the West Nile virus' is patently false. This is so despite the egg-laying ducks' being a subset of the female ones and despite the number of mosquitoes that don't carry the virus being ninety-nine times the number that do. Puzzling facts such as these have made generic sentences defy adequate semantic treatment. However complex the truth conditions of generics appear to be, though, young children grasp generics more quickly and readily than seemingly simpler quantifiers such as `all' and `some'. I present an account of generics that not only illuminates the strange truth conditions of generics, but also explains how young children find them so comparatively easy to acquire. I then argue that generics give voice to our most cognitively primitive generalizations and that this hypothesis accounts for a variety of facts ranging from acquisition patterns to cross-linguistic data concerning the phonological articulation of operators. I go on to develop an account of the nature of these cognitively fundamental generalizations and argue that this account explains the strange truth-conditional behavior of generics.
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DOI 10.1215/00318108-2007-023
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Sarah-Jane Leslie (2007). Generics and the Structure of the Mind. Philosophical Perspectives 21 (1):375–403.

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