Linguistic-pragmatic factors in interpreting disjunctions

Thinking and Reasoning 8 (4):297 – 326 (2002)
Abstract
The connective or can be treated as an inclusive disjunction or else as an exclusive disjunction. Although researchers are aware of this distinction, few have examined the conditions under which each interpretation should be anticipated. Based on linguistic-pragmatic analyses, we assume that interpretations are initially inclusive before either (a) remaining so, or (b) becoming exclusive by way of an implicature ( but not both ). We point to a class of situations that ought to predispose disjunctions to inclusive interpretations and to situations that encourage exclusive interpretations. A disjunction's ultimate interpretation is based on its potential informativeness, where the interpretation of the disjunctive utterance having the smallest number of true conditions is considered most informative. Our investigation leads to five experiments employing arbitrary materials. Among the problems expected to encourage inclusive interpretations are those that present disjunctions in the antecedents of conditionals and in question forms. The best candidates to produce implicatures are those disjunctions that underdetermine an expected conjunctive conclusion, although other disjunctive utterances that are more informative as exclusive are discussed and tested.
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