The acquisition of disjunction: Evidence for a grammatical view of scalar implicatures


This paper investigates young children's knowledge of scalar implicatures and downward entailment. In previous experimental work, we have shown that young children access the full range of truth-conditions associated with logical words in classical logic, including the disjunction operator, as well as the indefinite article. The present study extends this research in three ways, taking disjunction as a case study. Experiment 1 draws upon the observation that scalar implicatures (SIs) are cancelled (or reversed) in downward entailing (DE) linguistic environments, e.g., in the scope of negation (Chierchia, 2000). Experiment 2 was designed to determine if scalar implicatures are used by children, like adults, to influence the interpretation of disjunction in non-DE contexts, yielding an implicature of exclusivity for disjunction. Whereas adult controls always rejected assertions of the form A or B in positive (non-DE) contexts in which assertions of the form A and B were also true, many children accepted assertions with disjunction in such contexts. To provide an interpretation to the findings from Experiment 2, a new experimental technique was devised and used in Experiment 3. The new technique presents pairs of assertions to children, who are asked to judge which assertion is a ‘better’ description of the context. The findings from Experiment 3 demonstrated children's awareness that A and B is more informative than A or B in positive contexts, where both statements are true. Taken together, the findings of Experiments 2 and 3 are compatible with the view that some children lack the computational resources to apply scalar implicatures when a single assertion is presented alone (see Reinhart, 1999).



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