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Review of  Experimental Pragmatics/Semantics

Reviewer: Mary B. Shapiro
Book Title: Experimental Pragmatics/Semantics
Book Author: Jörg Meibauer Markus Steinbach
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 22.3948

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EDITORS: Meibauer, Jörg; Steinbach, Markus
TITLE: Experimental Pragmatics/Semantics
SERIES: Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 175
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

Mary Shapiro, Department of English & Linguistics, Truman State University


This volume is a collection of original papers, which are expanded versions of
presentations given at the February 2008 Experimental Pragmatics/Semantics
workshop at the Annual Meeting of the German Linguistics Society (held at the
University of Bamberg, Germany). Its stated aim is “to advance the current
debate among theoretical and experimental linguists on the interface between
pragmatics and semantics.” It focuses particularly on providing empirical data
for the classical Gricean distinction between 'what is said' and 'what is
implicated.' It is aimed at theoretical linguists, psycho- and neurolinguists,
and philosophers of language.

The Introduction, by the volume editors Jörg Meibauer and Markus Steinbach,
entitled “Experimental research at the pragmatics/semantics interface,” provides
an overview of the large theoretical debates in the field: e.g. Neogriceans
(i.e. those who “tend to defend the conceptual value of Gricean maxims or
principles” (p. 1), such as Levinson 2000) vs. relevance theorists (i.e. those
who “refer to general cognitive principles such as the Principle of Optimal
Relevance” (p. 1), such as Wilson & Sperber 2004); minimalism (“a classical,
minimalist approach to the truth conditions of a sentence, and consequently […]
a more powerful apparatus for pragmatic interpretation” (p. 2)) vs.
contextualism (the assumption that context plays a much greater role in numerous
aspects of semantic interpretation); and competing terminological proposals
(especially with respect to “pragmatically steered propositional enrichment”).
Some of these discussions are echoed in the literature reviews of the individual
papers that follow (e.g. Liedtke discusses contextualism and implicature vs.
explicature, with a review of experimental approaches to the question).

“The development of conversational competence in children with Specific Language
Impairment” (SLI), by Robert M. Kurtz and Ronnie B. Wilbur, shows that children
with SLI produce significantly more violations of conversational rules than
typically developing peers (with archival videotapes from a previous study in
which preschool children interacted with adult examiners rated by two adult
judges), particularly involving Gricean maxims of relation and quantity
(respectively, “be relevant,” and “make your contribution as informative as
required”). The authors acknowledge the limitation of a small number of subjects
in both the target and control groups (4 each), and raise important questions
about methodology.

In “The impact of literal meaning on what-is-said,” Frank Liedtke tests 42
undergraduates on 8 items, and finds that speakers have intuitions regarding
“the extent to which one would classify something uttered as something said” (p.
57); that is, “a level of utterance meaning which has a set of obligations for
the utterer” (p. 59).

“Discourse under control in ambiguous sentences,” by Vincenzo Moscati, reports
on two experiments on the interaction of Italian modal ‘potere’ and sentential
negation, and finds that “in the presence of logical ambiguity, children prefer
the reading expressing impossibility. Even when this interpretation is not
allowed in the adult grammar” (p. 74). Assuming that every assertion must be
informative with regard to a salient “Question Under Discussion” (QUD), Husley
et al. (2004) proposed a Question Answer Requirement (QAR). No effects were
found from manipulations of the QUD here, leading Moscati to state that the
interpretation of the interaction of modality and negation does not appear to be
affected by the QAR.

“Pragmatic children: How German children interpret sentences with and without
the focus particle only,” by Anja Müller, Petra Schulz, and Barbara Höhle
replicates, in German, an English study by Paterson et al. (2003), using the
same set of pictures with six-year-olds, and confirms that both English and
German-speaking children “did not seem to integrate the set of alternatives into
their current discourse model when the set of alternatives was not introduced in
the verbal context” (p. 97). A second experiment on children’s pragmatic ability
to judge underinformative sentences, however, showed that both children and
adults were affected (albeit to differing extents) by the informational
complexity of a picture, suggesting that the results of the first experiment
were due to the methodology employed, not due to a general principle of
children's cognition.

“Adult response uniformity distinguishes semantics from pragmatics: Implications
for child language,” by Leah R. Paltiel-Gedalyovich, supports the assertion of
its title by showing that children age 5 and older showed “uniform adultlike
knowledge” (p. 101) of semantic, truth-conditional meanings (e.g. conjunction,
disjunction) in a truth value judgment task, while non-truth-conditional
semantic and pragmatic meanings which did not receive uniform judgments from
adults (e.g. quantity implicatures associated with 'or' and 'but') were still
not demonstrated by the age of 9 and a half years.

In “Numerals and scalar implicatures,” Daniele Panizza and Gennaro Chierchia
present results of two experiments (a questionnaire given to 48 Italian
undergraduate students and a reading task measuring eye movement of 54 native
Italian speakers) to argue that numerals embedded in upward-entailing contexts
(which license entailments from subsets to supersets) are given an upper-bounded
(“exactly”) reading more often than when embedded in minimally different
downward entailing contexts (which display the opposite entailments), suggesting
that the stronger interpretation is due to a scalar implicature (that is, a
conversational implicature due to the observation of the maxim of quantity).

“Meaning in the objects,” by Katharina J. Rohlfing, details an experiment
manipulating mothers' speech to their young children (involving 17 American
English-speaking and 17 German-speaking mother-child pairs, with children 20-26
months old), and offers strong statistical evidence that the nature of objects
in the testing situation (particularly whether the objects are in canonical or
noncanonical spatial relationships) influences linguistic as well as gestural
behavior, with mothers' nonverbal behavior also affected by knowledge of their
children's productive lexicon (as reported by a pre-test parent questionnaire).

“Blocking modal enrichment (tatsächlich),” by Hans-Christian Schmitz, presents a
series of experiments of undergraduates in Germany, showing that students can
perform 'modal enrichment' of sentences such as “It's 5 past 3, but my watch is
5 minutes fast” (interpreting the non-literal message that it's actually 3
o'clock), but that the operation is blocked by the German term ' tatsächlich.'
The author assumes that 'in fact' (the literal translation) will operate
similarly in English.

Petra B. Schumacher's “The hepatitis called…: Electrophysiological evidence for
enriched composition” documents a particular event-related brain potential
(ERP), a late positivity associated with increased processing demands of
reference transfer (when a salient property associated with an individual is
used to refer to that person, as in referring to a hepatitis patient as “the
hepatitis”). After the ERP recordings, all 24 subjects completed a questionnaire
rating the acceptability of such expressions. The questionnaire showed that
reference transfer is marked in comparison to more direct referential
expressions (some subjects volunteered comments about it being “impolite”), but
comparing these self-assessments to the ERP data showed no consistent effect of
conscious, overt attitudes on the underlying, online processing of such

“The role of QUD and focus on the scalar implicature of ‘most,’” by Arjen
Zondervan, manipulates focus by an explicit QUD to show that when story and
target sentence are constant, more scalar implicatures are calculated when
'most' is in the focus (new information) part of the sentence. Two truth value
judgment experiments were conducted (on separate subjects) to test whether the
wording of the task (the first asking subjects to deem sentences 'true' or
'false,' the second asking for 'right' or 'wrong') mattered, but showed no
significant difference in responses.

The chapters are not numbered and will be referred to in the evaluation section
by author(s) only.


The studies included here are interesting and should encourage future empirical
study of the semantics-pragmatics interface. Schumacher’s excellent
demonstration of the disconnect between conscious evaluation and underlying
processing should convince even the most traditional semanticists of the need
for empirical testing and of the exciting potential for collaboration between
psycholinguists and semanticists. Future discussions of the role of the QUD will
not be able to ignore the evidence presented by Zondervan and Moscati, although
it will be interesting to see how these are reconciled, given that Zondervan
documents a QUD effect and Moscati the lack thereof (albeit with respect to
different semantic features).

Nonetheless, the volume was somewhat disappointing in a couple of respects.
First, the topics under investigation are somewhat scattered, with noticeable
gaps at the heart of the semantics-pragmatics distinction; nary a word about
presupposition, speech acts, or discourse particles, and hardly any discussion
of referring expressions, beyond Schumacher's investigation of “reference
transfer.” While some chapters may be of interest only to those interested in
the particular feature under investigation (e.g. Schmitz on modal enrichment),
quite a few chapters raise methodological issues that will be relevant for
anyone interested in the use of empirical data in the study of semantics and

Not surprisingly, given the context of the workshop from which these papers were
drawn, the languages investigated are overwhelmingly Germanic, with seven out of
the ten chapters using German, English, and/or Dutch data. Two (Moscati and
Panizza & Chierchia) use Italian, and one (Paltiel-Gedalyovich) uses Hebrew, but
that is the extent of the diversity included. Although Liedtke in particular
urges the crosslinguistic confirmation of previous studies, this volume does not
move us very far in that direction.

Since traditional approaches to semantics and pragmatics have not been
explicitly experimental, it would not appear that there are clear disciplinary
norms for such investigations as of yet. Some of the studies included here are
strictly controlled, or at least acknowledge their methodological limitations,
such as Schumacher, who gives (among other details) standard deviations from the
mean age of her subjects (as well as the absolute range), sex, stipulates that
they were all monolingual, right-handed, and reports normal or
corrected-to-normal visual acuity (such details being common in psycholinguistic
research). Other studies present much less detail, such as Zondervan, who only
tells us that “35 participants were recruited by email.” Most of the
contributions offer adequate statistical analysis of experimental results; this,
however, is not consistent throughout the volume. Panizza & Chierchia present
suggestive percentages (e.g. conditional sentences receive upper-bounded
interpretations of the numeral 78% of the time in upward entailing environments
and only 49% of the time in downward entailing environments), terming certain
factors (and interactions of factors) as “significant” or not, but no
statistical analysis is given, and it is unclear whether these labels are
intended to denote statistical significance. In the case of Liedtke, the
percentage of judges that deemed a proposition “said” vs. “intimated” is often
quite close (e.g. 52.4% (22) vs. 45.4% (19)). It is unfortunate, then, that no
statistical analysis was conducted, especially given that he had a sufficient
number of judges to allow for strong statistical conclusions. Schmitz does
relevant statistical tests, yet his discussion seems to make stronger claims
than warranted by the experiments he conducted. While he shows that his subjects
do routinely perform modal enrichment on sentences without 'tatsächlich,' and
that they do not perform such enrichment when the lexical item is present, this
does not necessarily show that ' tatsächlich' “does not have truth-conditional
content; its only function is to block modal enrichment operations” (p. 197).

As psycholinguists have repeatedly found, studying young children can be
especially problematic. While half of the chapters included in this volume
involve young children, the methods vary widely, and most of these chapters have
implications for methodological considerations. Kurtz & Wilbur's finding that
children with SLI show pragmatic deficits is hardly surprising, but this study
is useful in that it points to limitations in the categorization scheme
developed by Bishop & Adams (1989): the two trained raters disagreed on the
categorization of the conversational violation thirty percent of the time.
Moscati and Paltiel-Gedalyovich both elicit truth value and/or felicity
judgments with varying stimuli (Moscati’s children saw a puppet show and heard a
story, Paltiel-Gedalyovich’s subjects looked at pictures). Both Müller, Schulz,
& Höhle, who employ a picture selection task, and Rohlfing, whose study involves
children even though the study targets the behavior of the mother, find that
nonlinguistic factors in the experimental situation (e.g. visual information in
the pictures for the former, and objects in canonical or noncanonical spatial
relationships for the latter) have an effect on linguistic judgments and/or
behavior, with implications for all future experiments.

As is common in edited volumes, the writing is quite uneven and in several cases
noticeably non-native, with grammatical errors. Footnotes are used throughout,
rather than end notes, and each chapter contains its own set of references.
There is a common index for the volume, but it is very bare bones and not
particularly useful. For example, I could not figure out why 'or' and 'only'
merit entries, while spatial relations in general and 'on' and 'under' in
particular do not (since Rohlfing does quite a bit with these).

While Meibauer & Steinbach’s review of the field in the Introduction is
certainly far from complete, it does provide adequate context for the work
presented here, showing how the current studies contribute to ongoing debates
and how they build on previously developed methodologies. All of the
contributions are quite accessible to nonspecialists due to avoiding complex
semantic representations and not assuming in-depth knowledge of particular
theories or frameworks. At times, the struggle to maintain this level of
accessibility becomes apparent, and a little more editorial work could have been
done to avoid repeating definitions or to agree upon what background knowledge
might be safely assumed for the intended audience. For example, the Introduction
explicitly introduces, defines, and elaborates on the idea of scalar
implicatures (p. 3), but then refers casually, with no explanation, to
“pragmatic principles like the Q-Principle, the I-Principle, and the
M-Principle” (p. 4). Similarly, the Kurtz & Wilbur chapter explicitly introduces
Grice's maxims of conversation, even though the Introduction had previously
assumed familiarity with these.

In conclusion, although this volume does not fulfill my own personal wish list
of topics I'd like to see covered, it does advance us in that direction. As the
volume's editors put it, although “the resulting picture [of this collection] is
by no ways a coherent one, this volume […] contributes findings and arguments
that will foster future discussions” (p. 11).


Bishop, D. & Adams, C. 1989. Conversational characteristics of children with
semantic- pragmatic disorder, II: What features lead to a judgment of
inappropriacy? The British Journal of Disorders of Communication 24: 241-263.

Husley, S., Hacquard, V., Fox, D., & Gualmini, A. 2004. The question-answer
requirement and scope assignment. In Plato’s Problem: Papers on Language
Acquisition, A. Csirmaz, A. Gualmini & A. Nevins, 71-90. Cambridge, MA: MITWPL.

Levinson, S.C. 2000. Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized
Conversational Implicature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Paterson, K., Liversedge, S., Rowland, C., & Filik, R. 2003. Children’s
comprehension of sentences with focus particles. Cognition 89: 263-294.

Wilson, D. & Sperber, D. 2004. Relevance theory. In The Handbook of Pragmatics,
L.R. Horn &
G. Ward (eds.), 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mary Shapiro is a Professor of Linguistics at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO where she teaches a course on “Semantics & Pragmatics” as well as one on “Language & the Mind.”