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On the Non-Unified Nature of Scalar Implicature: An Empirical Investigation

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Scalar implicaure is often offered as the exemplar of generalized conversational implicature. However, despite the wealth of literature devoted to both the phenomenon in general and to specific examples, little attention has been paid to the various factors that may influence the generation and interpretation of scalar implicatures. This study employs the “Literal Lucy” methodology developed in Larson et al. (in press) to further investigate these factors in a controlled experimental setting. The results of our empirical investigation suggest that the type of scale employed affects whether or not speakers judge a particular scalar implicature to be part of the truth-conditional meaning of an utterance. Moreover, we found that features of the conversational context in which the implicature is situated also play an important role. Specifically, we have found that the number of scalar values evoked in the discourse context plays a significant role in the interpretation of scalar implicatures generated from gradable adjective scales but not other scale types. With respect to the effects of scale type, we have found that gradable adjectives were less frequently incorporated into truth-conditional meaning than cardinals, quantificational items, and ranked orderings. Additionally, ranked orderings were incorporated less than cardinals. Thus, the results from the current study show that the interpretation of scalar implicature is sensitive to both the associated scale type and discourse context.

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