Children interpret disjunction as conjunction: Consequences for theories of implicature and child development

Natural Language Semantics 24 (4):305-352 (2016)
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Abstract

We present evidence that preschool children oftentimes understand disjunctive sentences as if they were conjunctive. The result holds for matrix disjunctions as well as disjunctions embedded under every. At the same time, there is evidence in the literature that children understand or as inclusive disjunction in downward-entailing contexts. We propose to explain this seemingly conflicting pattern of results by assuming that the child knows the inclusive disjunction semantics of or, and that the conjunctive inference is a scalar implicature. We make two assumptions about implicature computation in the child: that children access only a proper subset of the adult alternatives, and that children possess the adult capacity to strengthen sentences with implicatures. As a consequence, children are expected to sometimes not compute any implicatures at all, but in other cases they are expected to compute an implicature that is different from the adult implicature. We argue that the child’s conjunctive strengthening of disjunctive sentences realizes the latter possibility: the adult infers that the conjunction is false but the child infers that the conjunction is true. This behaviour is predicted when our assumptions about child development are coupled with the assumption that a covert exhaustive operator is responsible for strengthening in both the child and the adult. Specifically, children’s conjunctive strengthening is predicted to follow from the same mechanism used by adults to compute conjunctive free choice implicatures in response to disjunctive permission sentences. We furthermore argue that this parallel between the child and the adult extends to disambiguation preferences. In particular, we present evidence that children prefer to strengthen disjunctions to conjunctions, in matrix and embedded positions ; this result mirrors previous findings that adults prefer to compute free choice, at the root and under every. We propose a disambiguation strategy that explains the preference for conjunctive strengthening – by both the child and the adult – even though there is no general preference for exhaustification. Specifically, we propose that the preference for a conjunctive strengthening follows from a pragmatic preference for a complete answer to the Question Under Discussion.

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R. Singh
Brock University