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LINGUIST List 22.5069

Thu Dec 15 2011

Diss: Lang Acq/Pragmatics: Davies: 'Over-Informativeness in ...'

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        1.     Catherine Davies , Over-Informativeness in Referential Communication

Message 1: Over-Informativeness in Referential Communication
Date: 15-Dec-2011
From: Catherine Davies <c.n.daviesleeds.ac.uk>
Subject: Over-Informativeness in Referential Communication
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Institution: Cambridge University
Program: PhD in Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2011

Author: Catherine Evans Davies

Dissertation Title: Over-Informativeness in Referential Communication

Dissertation URL: http://www.srcf.ucam.org/~cnd24/CDaviesCompleteThesisPaperback.pdf

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition

Dissertation Director:
Napoleon Katsos

Dissertation Abstract:

This thesis investigates the pragmatic mechanisms responsible for detecting
how much information is appropriate to include in referring expressions by
adults and children. Theoretically, it rests on the Cooperative Principle
(Grice, 1975/1989) which is comprised of four conversational maxims to
which all cooperative speakers are assumed to adhere. The experiments
herein test whether the fundamental processes behind these theoretical
ideas are psychologically real in adults and children, with a focus on
informativeness/quantity maxims. The novel contribution of the thesis to
this domain is the verification of sensitivity to and use of
informativeness cues; an integral skill in parsing abilities.

Using referential communication tasks for production and comprehension, the
experimental findings reveal penalties resulting from non-optimally
informative utterances. Under-informative referring expressions cause
delays for the hearer, and speakers are penalised on judgments of
expression quality. Over-informative utterances also elicit processing
delays and penalties. This is compatible with hypotheses predicting that
interlocutors hold expectations of optimal amounts of information and
suggest that Grice's Quantity maxim is psychologically real in comprehenders.

Experiments 1 to 4 respond to a previous study reporting that speakers and
hearers are sensitive to under-informativeness but not to
over-informativeness (Engelhardt, Bailey & Ferreira, 2006). In
comprehension, experiment 1 replicates the original findings regarding
under-informativeness but also documents a tentative sensitivity to
over-informativeness; revealed more robustly by experiment 2. Experiments 3
and 4 focus on production, finding that speakers do not under- or
over-inform in neutral contexts, but may over-inform when aspects of the
referent are made salient. This constitutes evidence that speakers and
hearers are sensitive to both Quantity maxims in simple contexts,
suggesting that the effects obtained in previous literature should be
attributed to pragmatic factors rather than structural constraints.

Experiments 5 to 7 investigate the development of pragmatic expectations of
informativeness. They document five-year-old children's off-line ability to
detect non-optimal informativeness. In production, experiment 5 finds that
whilst children are frequently under-informative, they produce very low
rates of over-informative referring expressions overall. From the
comprehender's perspective, experiment 6 shows that using binary judgments,
five-year-olds do not reliably reject over-informative utterances (unlike
adults), although they show an adult-like sensitivity to under-informative
expressions. Experiment 7 tests the same sensitivities but this time allows
intermediate ratings by using a gradable scale, yielding sensitivity to
both under- and over-informative expressions. Thus, a major finding is that
children do have adult-like processing mechanisms regarding the detection
of Quantity-based infelicities. This pattern of results is accommodated
within a novel account, the pragmatic tolerance hypothesis (Katsos &
Bishop, 2011) and extends the hypothesis beyond accounting for sensitivity
to under-informativeness by additionally encompassing sensitivity to

The thesis provides evidence for adult and child sensitivity to both
Quantity maxims, with implications for pragmatic theory, for
psycholinguistic theory, and for methods in experimental pragmatics.

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