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Review of  The Oxford Handbook of Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics

Reviewer: Nicolas Ruytenbeek
Book Title: The Oxford Handbook of Experimental Semantics and Pragmatics
Book Author: Chris Cummins Napoleon Katsos
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Issue Number: 31.267

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In Chapter 1, “Introduction”, Chris Cummins and Napoleon Katsos, the book editors, present the aims underlying this volume. These are a wish to reflect a change in the field of semantics and pragmatics, where researchers gradually moved away from armchair intuitions to empirical data collected using more reliable and controlled methods. They also want this volume to reflect a variety of research topics, experimental methods, and available findings in this recent and growing field. Finally, they hope these contributions will help identify under-researched questions and stimulate the use of contemporary methodological tools. Concerning the organization of the volume, it is not, strictly speaking, divided into thematic sections, but the editors have grouped the chapters according to their content.

Chapters 2 to 4 share a common thread, as they all relate to implicatures.

In Chapter 2, “Language comprehension, inference, and alternatives”, Dimitrios Skordos and David Barner provide an overview of theoretical and empirical work concerning inference-making and disambiguation between alternative interpretations. Focusing on the processing of scalar terms and quantifiers, they show that children’s comprehension of these types of linguistic expressions in context differs from that of adults, insofar as children often experience difficulty when trying to relate an utterance to a plausible question under discussion (QUD).

Chapter 3, “Constraint-based pragmatic processing”, addresses the major developments in constraint-based accounts of natural language understanding. Judith Degen and Michael K. Tanenhaus apply this approach to scalar implicatures, and structure their contribution by examining QUD, prior beliefs and world knowledge, informativeness with respect to alternative utterances, information about the speaker, and common ground. They highlight the usefulness of these approaches to study perspective-taking in decision-making situations, and make suggestions for further research on the relationship between processing speed and likelihood of interpretations.

In Chapter 4, “Scalar implicatures”, Richard Breheny contributes a literature study on the interpretation of scalar terms (e.g., some, most, all) from a psychological and linguistic perspective. One major finding is that the “literal first” model is untenable, and a large variety of factors, including aspects of experimental design, may influence the rate of derivation of scalar implicatures. One possible way to further investigate scalars is to study them together with QUDs and the search for relevance behind our utterances.

Chapters 5 to 7 concern topics that are not otherwise related to other contributions in the volume.

Chapter 5, “Event (de)composition”, presents how different elements that structure an event are involved in utterance processing. For instance, the sentence “John hardened the steel” means that John caused the steel to become hard, where CAUSE and BECOME are event predicates. Sherry Yong Chen and E. Mathew Husband review experimental evidence ranging from reading tasks to decision-making paradigms. They provide a complete picture of how event components are integrated into a coherent representation, revealing cognitive complexity differences between result (“The prices broke the market”) and manner (“The explorer climbed the mountain”) meanings.

In Chapter 6, “Presupposition, projection, and accommodation”, Florian Schwartz discusses current theoretical issues and recent experimental findings pertaining to different types of presupposition triggers, such as soft vs. hard triggers corresponding to easy vs. difficult presupposition cancellability. His literature review emphasizes the variety of behaviors corresponding to these different trigger types. However, to date, no theory is able to account for this disparity, and more research is needed, in particular when it comes to embedded presupposition triggers.

Cross-linguistic differences and similarities in the linguistic encoding of information about space is addressed in Chapter 7, “Spatial terms”. Myrto Grigoroglou and Anna Papafragou are also interested in the underlying cognitive representations of spatial terms, which are very similar across languages. They also point out that using spatial terms is beneficial to the performance of cognitively demanding tasks. The authors take as case studies spatial terms concerning location (on/under), motion (into/from), and frames of reference.

In Chapters 8 to 15, the reader will find discussions of quantifiers and similar operators.

In Chapter 8, “Counterfactuals”, Heather Ferguson examines how information about fictitious and alternative worlds is represented and processed in real time. She reviews experimental studies using psychophysiological methods, showing that factual and counterfactual contexts can be accessed in parallel. An important question that deserves more research concerns the influence of social context on the use and interpretation of counterfactual information, as well as the (lack of) flexibility that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience when dealing with counterfactual utterances.

Chapter 9, “Distributivity”, focuses on interpretative ambiguities associated with distributive sentences. For instance, “The two men ate a pizza” has a collective reading (they ate together only one pizza) and a distributive reading (each of them ate one pizza). Kristen Syrett reviews experimental data from children and adult participants, consisting in acceptability judgment tasks complemented by online studies. The author also emphasizes the importance of extending experimental work on distributive sentences to languages other than English.

In Chapter 10, “Genericity”, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigaga deal with sentences about classes, such as “A cat lands on its feet”. They present the formal semantic, psychological, and philosophical accounts of genericity. Different experimental approaches to the phenomenon of genericity are reviewed. As these are largely based on offline judgments, the authors make recommendations for future experiments involving online methods of data collection, such as brain-imaging techniques.

Chapter 11 concerns “Modified numerals” such as “at least/most + numeral + noun”. Rick Nouwen, Stavroula Alexandropoulou and Yaron McNabb take into consideration experimental evidence showing that modified numerals give rise to pragmatic inferences. The authors criticize current approaches to pragmatic inference in general, that only distinguish between defeasible and mandatory inferences. They insist that more attention should be paid to the variability in the likelihood of pragmatic inferences.

In Chapter 12, “Negation”, Ye Tian and Richard Breheny provide an overview of experimental evidence bearing on the processing of linguistic negation. One possible generalization is that processing differences between negative utterances and their affirmative counterparts become smaller as more contextual information is available. Another finding concerns the larger amount of background information against which negative utterances are interpreted. From a theoretical perspective, dynamic accounts of negation processing are confirmed.

Chapter 13, “Plurality”, addresses the puzzle triggered by sentences including “more than one X” (e.g., “More than one donkey arrived” vs. “No more than one donkey arrived”), the negation of which is not identical to the negation of the plural equivalent of “more than one” (Donkeys arrived vs. No donkeys arrived). Lyn Tieu and Jacopo Romoli demonstrate that the strong reading of “more than one” (strictly more than one, not equal to one) is best thought of as an implicature.

Chapter 14, “Quantification”, deals with differences in the scope of quantifiers, as in the sentence “Each girl kissed a boy”, which can be understood as meaning that one boy was kissed by each of the girls or as meaning that each girl kissed a boy (not necessarily the same boy). After reviewing available experimental findings on the interpretation of quantifiers such as “each”, “every”, “all” and the definite article “the”, Adrian Brasoveanu and Jakub Dotlačil make suggestions for integrating these findings into a unified theory of scope.

In Chapter 15, “Quantifier spreading”, Patricia J. Brooks and Olga Parshina address comprehension mistakes associated with sentences of the type “Every farmer is feeding a donkey”. Children often report this sentence as being incorrect if there is one donkey left that is not being taken care of. The experimental evidence covered in this chapter indicates that this mistake—known as quantifier spreading—does not result from the misinterpretation of a quantifier. Processing experiments involving eye-tracking also show that cognitive effort increases during spreading errors.

Chapters 16 to 22 are devoted to lexical ambiguities.

In Chapter 16, “Adjective meanings and scales”, Stephanie Solt provides an overview of how gradable adjectives have been experimentally investigated. This wide range of evidence, which enables the objectification of native speakers’ intuitions, concerns, in particular, the type of scale associated with gradable adjectives. She also discusses evidence bearing on adjectival subjectivity and faultless disagreement, and closes this chapter with methodological issues related to stimuli creation, the choice of tasks, and the wording of questions.

Chapter 17, “Ironic utterances”, summarizes empirical findings having to do with the processing of irony. Nicola Spotorno and Ira Noveck assume a general Gricean background against which they assess the results of recent neuro-imaging and psychophysiological studies, including Spotorno’s own PhD research. This review highlights the key role of theory of mind in irony comprehension. Another general conclusion is that one should be careful when manipulating attitude ascriptions in experimental designs.

In Chapter 18, “Metaphor”, Nausicaa Pouscoulous and Giulio Dulcinati discuss experimental research concerning metaphors, i.e., mappings from one cognitive domain to another. Interested in the cognitive processes underlying metaphor understanding, their contribution focuses on the relationship between the literal and figurative meaning of metaphorical utterances, on the theoretical debate between defenders of the “property matching” view vs. the “automatic understanding” view, and on differences in the acquisition of different types of metaphors. In addition, the authors propose new avenues of research for studies on metaphors.

Chapter 19, “Metonymy”, is devoted to metonymy as a trope or a cognitive operation consisting in referring to an entity by means of another, associated entity. Petra B. Schumacher discusses experimental data enabling a comparison between the processing of metonymies and that of expressions with multiple meanings. She then contrasts the processing of multiple meanings vs. that of meaning extensions, which exhibits considerable variability. Findings from studies in language acquisition and language disorders are also considered.

In Chapter 20, “Vagueness”, Sam Alxatib and Uli Sauerland discuss the contribution of experimental work to research on linguistic vagueness. Differentiating current theories of vagueness in terms of scope (global/local) and valency (bivalent, trivalent, multivalent), the authors focus on borderline cases where a gradable adjective is predicated of an object or person (e.g., “John is (not) tall”) and on rounding in numbers. Their overview reflects a current increase in the reliability of speakers’ judgments caused by more controlled methods for data collection.

In Chapter 21, “Verbal uncertainty”, Marie Juanchich, Miroslav Sirota and Jean-François Bonnefon address the various methods used by experimental psychologists to study human communication about uncertainty. They examine how verbal probabilities expressed by, for instance, “a tiny/small chance”, “probably”, “likely”, etc. are mapped onto numerical probabilities. They also pay attention to the spontaneous use of probability expressions in daily communication.

Chapter 22, “Word senses”, proposes an answer to the question of why words have distinct senses. Hugh Rabagliati and Mahesh Srinivasan discuss the three major perspectives on the meaning of words: conceptual biases and culture-specific conventions rooted in cognitive development, how word senses are represented in our mental lexicon, and the learning mechanisms involved in word processing. This chapter shows that cognitive flexibility is a key factor in dealing with multiple senses.

Chapters 23 to 29 focus on utterance disambiguation in discourse.

Kristen Syrett’s Chapter 23, “Antecedent-contained deletion”, is about a particular case of verbal ellipsis (VE), as in “Lady Sybil fell in love, and Lady Mary did, too”. This is called antecedent-contained deletion (ACD), as illustrated in “Daisy eventually knew how to prepare every dish that Mrs. Patmore did”. Assuming a generative syntactic framework, she reviews experimental studies on movements involved in ACD, such as quantifier raising, in children and adults.

Chapter 24 “Exhaustivity in it-clefts”, deals with sentences of the type “It was John who left during the meeting”, which triggers an exhaustivity inference according to which nobody other than John left during the meeting. In this chapter, Edgar Onea proposes a critical discussion of experimental findings bearing on the status of exhaustivity inferences: Are they presuppositions? Implicatures? The evidence reviewed supports an analysis of these inferences in terms of implicatures. The author makes a proposal for deriving them as anaphors related to a QUD.

Chapter 25, “Focus”, considers different realizations of focus: prosody, clefts, and focus particles such as “only”. Christina S. Kim concentrates on issues concerning the characterization and operationalization of focus in available experimental studies, where different understandings of focus exist. The experimental studies brought to the fore by the author cover the cognitive processing of focus realizations measured by eye movements, focus and ambiguity resolution, focus as a cue to discourse structure, and conflicting cues to focus.

In Chapter 26, “Negative polarity items” (NPIs), Ming Xiang addresses these lexical items that are only licensed by a negation, such as anybody in “John didn’t talk to anybody”. Experimental evidence bearing on the acquisition of NPIs is discussed, showing that the variety of NPIs differ in terms of difficulty of acquisition. Additional research is welcome, in particular relative to the interplay between NPIs and focus marking expressions, and downward entailing inferences.

In Chapter 27, “Pronouns”, Hannah Rohde stresses that pronouns not only structure discourse, but they impose pragmatic constraints on their use and interpretation. She reviews experimental findings relevant to the reasoning underlying the identification of pronoun referents. To reconcile coherence-based and form-based approaches of the anaphoric use of pronouns, she presents a Bayesian approach. This account takes into consideration interpreters’ prior beliefs about the mention of a referent and the likelihood that this referent will be mentioned with a pronoun.

In Chapter 28, “Reference and informativeness”, Catherine Davies and Jennifer E. Arnold are interested in how speakers use linguistic expressions with a referring purpose. They focus on modified vs. unmodified referential expressions and on pronominalized vs. explicit descriptions. A Gricean approach centered on the maxim of Quantity and a discursive approach are considered. Available experimental findings concerning the use and processing of referential expressions is reviewed according to common ground, gestures, referential pacts, speaker’s goals, and constraints from referents.

Chapter 29, “Prosody and meaning”, concerns the contribution of prosodic information on meaning, in particular information-structuring focus. Judith Tonhauser considers experimental data from different languages showing a high variability in the prosodic realization of focus across speakers and utterances. The role of prosody in the likelihood of derivation of scalar implicatures is also addressed.

The remaining three chapters share an interest in the pragmatics of social interaction.

In Chapter 30, “Politeness”, Thomas Holtgraves considers experimental research on politeness triggered Brown & Levinson’s (1987) model, and bearing on the complex interaction between social status, distance, and perceived (im)politeness. In particular, he discusses evidence concerning the role of face-threat in the derivation of scalar implicatures and the cognitive mechanisms involved in the processing of politeness. He also proposes to investigate several other contextual and inter-individual variables.

Chapter 31, “Theory of mind”, is devoted to how humans reason about others’ beliefs and desires. Paula Rubio-Fernández provides an overview of empirical data from children aged 2-4, indicating that their ability to attribute beliefs actually precedes the age at which they pass traditional false beliefs tests. Being aware of someone else’s mental states is different from being able to predict or explain that person’s behavior. She highlights the importance of theory of mind studies for pragmatic research in general.

In the final chapter, “Turn-taking”, Jan P. De Ruiter addresses the rules that underlie daily communication from a conversational analytic (CA) perspective. He starts his contribution with an explanation about the debated status of these rules. He then explores the processing of these rules in terms of lexico-syntactic information that enables anticipating the next turn, stressing the relevance of combining CA, corpus analysis, offline and online experimental methods.


In offering reviews concerning a variety of topics at the semantics-pragmatics interface, this book makes both a theoretical and empirical contribution. It achieves one of its main goals, providing an up-to-date overview of experimental data collected using different methodologies, ranging from native speakers’ introspective judgments (offline) to measures of moment-by-moment cognitive processing of utterances (online). These aims are clearly expressed by the editors in their introductory chapter, where they also provide some justification for the central attention given to Gricean pragmatics and scalar implicatures.

The editors deliberately present the individual chapters one after the other, without dividing the volume in separate parts based on content. In fact, this decision enables the reader to move back and forth through the volume. It also makes it possible to consider several chapters as a whole, such as the three contributions on figurative language (Chapters 17, 18, and 19 on irony, metaphor, and metonymy, respectively), or to have a more general appraisal of Chapters 16 to 29 (about a half of the total number of chapters) that have in common an interest in pragmatic ambiguities.

The content of this handbook both is diversified enough to cover current experimental research in semantics and pragmatics, and well delineated, as other subfields of linguistics only receive a peripheral status in the chapters. It is also really up to the minute because the authors of individual chapters focus on the most recent theoretical approaches on the market and they reflect the growing number of studies using cutting edge experimental methods, such as brain imaging techniques and psychophysiological tools to provide converging evidence about the processing of utterances in context. Despite the title suggesting that the volume will have little to say about theoretical considerations, there is a good balance between the space devoted to theories and that devoted to empirical studies.

Even though the editors intended this book to gather chapters that were representative of different research questions, several topics remains absent. For instance, experimental research on speech acts in general, and indirect speech acts in particular, are hardly touched upon. This is surprising, insofar as indirectness has been, since the emergence of the field of experimental pragmatics with Clark’s (1979) and Gibbs’ (1979) ground-breaking empirical contributions, the bread and butter of research at the semantics-pragmatics interface. Instead of indirect speech acts, conventional and conversational implicatures, which should not be confused with the former, are discussed in some detail throughout the chapters. In addition, unlike assertive speech acts, directive speech acts are not addressed in the volume. Finally, despite its very interesting critical discussion of experimental studies that tested Brown & Levinson’s model, Holtgraves’ chapter pays little attention to empirical investigation of perceived impoliteness, in particular from an intercultural and cross-cultural perspective. This shortcoming is complemented by individual chapters from the Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politeness (Culpeper et al. 2017), but cultural aspects of pragmatic research are missing from the present handbook. Of course, as the editors themselves acknowledge, taken together the chapters do not exhaust the diversity of research topics in experimental semantics and pragmatics, but they provide a strong incentive for extending the sort of work discussed here and applying online methods for data collection to other, less well described questions.

A possible concern that has to do with content is the absence of a discussion of methodological issues arising from the variety of measures of “processing cost” of “processing effort”, in the vein of Ruytenbeek (2017). This is unfortunate, as the notion of “cognitive processing” itself is central to many chapters. Questions such as which measure is appropriate to which research question, and how these measures should be interpreted deserve additional examination.

The view the editors advocate gives scalar implicatures considerable attention, as they have been, and still are, an interesting case study at the semantics-pragmatics interface. In their chapter, Degen and Tanenhaus rightly call them “the drosophilia of experimental pragmatics”. By contrast, the literal or “direct” vs. nonliteral or “indirect” distinction does not constitute a common thread of the book. This dismissal of the literal/nonliteral and direct/indirect distinctions by the editors in their introductory chapter, and the fact that it is not endorsed in the individual chapters, may constitute a shortcoming of the present book. Recent monographs, such as Kissine’s (2013), and edited volumes, such as Depraetere & Salkie’s (2017), illustrate the relevance of these distinctions both at the theoretical and empirical levels.

To conclude, I have no doubt that this original much needed volume will appeal not only to scholars who are relatively new to the new field of experimental semantics and pragmatics, but also to young researchers willing to pursue new research, and to more experienced scholars interested in interdisciplinary and empirical linguistics.


Brown, Penelope, and Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Clark, Herbert H. 1979. “Responding to Indirect Speech Acts.” Cognitive Psychology 11:430–77.

Culpeper, Jonathan, Michael Haugh & Dániel Kádár (Eds.). 2017. The Palgrave Handbook of Linguistic (Im)politeness. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Depraetere, Ilse & Raphael Salkie (Eds.). 2017. Semantics and Pragmatics: Drawing a Line. Amsterdam: Springer.

Gibbs, Raymond W. 1979. “Contextual effects in understanding indirect requests.” Discourse Processes 2: 1-10.

Kissine, Mikhail. 2013. From Utterances to Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ruytenbeek, Nicolas. 2017. “The comprehension of indirect requests: Previous work and future directions”. In Depraetere, Ilse & Raphael Salkie (Eds.), Semantics and pragmatics: Drawing a line. Amsterdam: Springer, 293-322.
I am a Postdoctoral researcher in Linguistics at the Department for Translation, Interpreting and Communication at Ghent University, and a member of the research group MULTIPLES. My main research interests are experimental approaches to politeness, speech act comprehension and production and, more generally, issues bearing on the semantics/pragmatics interface.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198791768
Pages: 688
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