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Review of  Experimental Pragmatics

Reviewer: Rick Nouwen
Book Title: Experimental Pragmatics
Book Author: Ira A Noveck Dan Sperber
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Issue Number: 16.1518

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Date: Wed, 11 May 2005 13:12:42 +0200
From: Rick Nouwen
Subject: Experimental Pragmatics

EDITORS: Noveck, Ira A; Sperber, Dan
TITLE: Experimental Pragmatics
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2004

Rick Nouwen, Graduiertenkolleg "Satzarten", Johann Wolfgang Goethe-
Universität Frankfurt am Main


This book is a collection of papers on studies in the new field
of "experimental pragmatics," which combines pragmatics with experimental
psychology. Pragmatics, here, is to be understood in a narrow sense,
namely as the study of how the interaction of linguistic properties and
context influences the interpretation of an utterance. This type of
pragmatic theory has traditionally been developed by linguists and
philosophers of language who have used their own intuitions as the basis
for their argumentation. Only recently has it been acknowledged that
experimental methods could play an important role in creating stronger
theories of "linguistic pragmatics." At the same time, a growing
recognition has emerged that experimental psychology will benefit from
studying pragmatics as well, since it has become clear that pragmatic
processes play an important role in quite a lot of cognitive tasks. The
editors of this collection stress, therefore, that the interaction between
the different kinds of methodology used in experimental psychology and
pragmatic theory will no doubt form empirically and theoretically stronger
theories of both pragmatic phenomena and the underlying cognitive

The book is divided into three parts. The first contains five chapters
representing pioneering approaches to experimental pragmatics. These
chapters describe longer periods of research on a specific topic and
discuss how experimental psychology and linguistic pragmatics have
interacted. In the second part, five papers introduce current topics in
experimental approaches to pragmatic phenomena. The third and final part
is completely devoted to the topic of scalar implicatures.

Part I: Pioneering approaches.

In the first chapter of this part, Herbert Clark and Adrian Bangerter
review how the theory of (definite) reference evolved over the years. In
particular, they show that this theoretical development was fuelled by
three distinct methods: (i) armchair theorising (intuitions), (ii)
experimental research and (iii) field observations. The authors discuss
how reference was first thought of as an uncooperative process (the
picking of a referent out of a set of alternatives) and how a series of
theoretical and experimental work caused several adjustments to how we
think about reference. After the philosophical work of Grice and
theoretical studies into the phenomenon of bridging reference, referring
is analysed a cooperative act. Subsequently, experimental research makes
clear that reference involves an additional coordination process. In
particular, it is shown that the interaction between the speaker and
hearer is crucial for the act of referring to proceed smoothly.

In the next chapter, Raymond Gibbs uses four case studies from his own
empirical work to illustrate how experimental research methods may be put
to work to help settle theoretical debates in linguistic pragmatics. The
studies discuss a variety of phenomena, including direct and indirect
speech acts and the attributive/referential distinction for definite
descriptions. Gibbs argues that studies like his illustrate the merits of
a field like experimental pragmatics. The impact of experimental studies
of linguistic pragmatic phenomena are in his view not to be
underestimated. They offer a falsification framework for pragmatics, while
at the same time they may resolve some of the scepticism that exists among
psycholinguists and scholars in theoretical pragmatics with respect to the
merits and the very possibility of experimental pragmatics.

In the third pioneering study, Sam Glucksberg argues against processing
models that assume that non-literal meaning only emerges in a secondary
processing stage. In such models, literal meaning is processed
effortlessly, while non-literal (or 'speaker's') meaning only emerges
after the defective literal meaning leads to additional inferences.
Glucksberg discusses several experiments on metaphor comprehension and
concept combination which show that pragmatic processes are automatic.

The next chapter, written by Guy Politzer, is concerned with the pragmatic
analysis of reasoning tasks. In evaluating tasks, Politzer distinguishes a
macro-analysis from a micro-analysis, which both are related to pragmatic
theory. In the macro-analysis, the experiment itself (that is, the
interaction between experimenter and subject) is essentially seen as a
conversational setting and therefore subject to all sorts of assumptions
and inferences which need to be reviewed. The micro-analysis of
experimental tasks applies to the premisses, consequences, questions etc.
that make up the task: it investigates what the actual propositions are
the participant uses. Such an analysis is therefore essential to
guaranteeing the validity of a task. Politzer illustrates his pragmatic
analysis by describing several experimental studies, showing that
experimental studies of reasoning cannot do without linguistic-

The final chapter of the first part of the book deals with quantifiers. It
sums up 15 years of research into the processing properties of natural
language quantifiers by the authors, Anthony Sanford and Linda Moxey. The
goal of their research programme is to construct a psychological model of
quantifier comprehension and to compare it with the predominantly formal
linguistic and logical standard analyses of quantification. They
concentrate on two functions of quantifiers their experimental studies
have revealed: the so-called focus of a quantifier (the set a quantifier
brings to mind) and the possibility for a quantifier to deny a contextual
supposition. An important part of the studies described in this chapter
deal with discrepancies between the experimentally attested data and
predictions made by analytical properties of quantifiers. For instance,
initial data suggested that the focus of a quantifiers is dependent on
whether or not it has the logical property of being upward entailing. On
closer investigation, it turned out, however, that it is rather the
psychologically distinct notion of 'denial' that is related to quantifier
focus. Sanford and Moxey show that the factors that play a role in
quantifier processing are non-analytical and are represented in continua.
Such results, the authors argue, illustrate the need for studying language
comprehension from the point of view of communication.

Part II: Current Issues in Experimental Pragmatics

In first chapter of this part of the book, Jean-Baptiste Van der Genst and
Dan Sperber discuss several experiments designed to test and confirm some
explicit central consequences of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson
1995). In particular, they focus on the two principles of relevance
theory: (i) that human cognition typically involves the maximisation of
relevance and (ii) that utterances involve a presumption of their own
optimal relevance. The first, cognitive, principle is tested by a series
of experiments on reasoning with comparison relations. It turns out that
subjects are willing to draw only those conclusions that are potentially
relevant. The second, communicative, principle is studied on the basis of
a series of variations on Wason's Selection Task. It is shown that the
performance on the task can be experimentally controlled by varying the
context and as such the relevance of certain actions. Similar results are
found for a production task.

The next chapter is written by Orna Peleg, Rechel Giora and Ofer Fein.
These authors study context effects in linguistic processing and argue for
the so-called "graded salience hypothesis." According to this hypothesis,
during language processing, linguistic (i.e. lexical) meanings are ordered
with respect to salience (on the basis of qualitative or quantitative
familiarity.) The more salient a meaning is, the faster it will be
accessed. A series of four experiments is presented that offers support
for this hypothesis and yields interesting data on the interaction between
lexical and contextual information.

Seanna Coulson's contribution to the book is the only one dealing with
cognitive neuroscience and electrophysiological methods. Coulson gives a
comprehensive and accessible overview of techniques in cognitive
neuroscience, focusing in particular on so-called event-related brain
potentials (ERPs). ERPs can be used to reveal systematic differences in
brain responses to pairs of stimuli. They yield waveforms containing
positive and negative peaks. The deflections of such a waveform are called
components. Several specific ERP components have turned out to be
functionally significant and have linguistic relevance. For instance, the
amplitude of the so-called N400 component has been shown to vary inversely
with the predictability of a certain word in a (preceding) context.
Moreover, it has been shown that words in an ambiguous text show
relatively greater N400 amplitudes than words in disambiguated text. This
component is thus directly relevant to pragmatics. Since, moreover, ERPs
offer a continuous direct measure of brain response, they are sensitive to
different kinds of processing and consequently offer a more detailed
measure than, for instance, reading times do. Coulson exploits this
feature in a study of metaphor comprehension and shows that there is a
continuum from literal to metaphorical interpretation rather than a
dichotomy. Coulson concludes by suggesting some interesting future
experiments which involve the study (and discovery) of pragmatic processes
using ERPs.

The next study in the book discusses children's understanding of speech
acts, with special focus on the case of promises. The authors, Josie
Bernicot and Virginie Laval, present two experiments. In the first, the so-
called preparatory condition is focused on. This condition says that
something is a commissive act only if the listener prefers the speaker to
perform the action in question. The experiment shows the relative late
acquisition of this condition. A second experiment shows that textual and
contextual aspects of processing start to interact around the age of 6.
This experiment, which was performed in French, shows that when children
are asked to process promises phrased using a future tense (instead of an
explicit verb "promettre" (to promise)) in absence of a promise-specific
context, they will only reconstruct the promise when the immediate (rather
than the simple) future tense is used. In other words, the experiments
show the close relation between textual and contextual factors in both
language acquisition and language use.

The final chapter in the second part of the book concerns "even-if"
conditionals and is written by Simon Handley and Aidan Feeney. Central to
the experiments presented in this chapter are conditionals like "Even if I
read everything on the reading list, I will fail the exam." Since it is
very surprising that someone fails an exam while having read everything on
the reading list, subjects are not eager to conclude that the speaker will
in fact fail. This provides evidence against an analysis of even-if
conditionals as universally quantified statements, where "even if A, B" is
interpreted as "in every possible case (including A), B is true". In such
an analysis one would expect that the truth of the consequence follows
readily from any even-if conditional. Effects like the ones found in
Handley and Feeney's experiment are therefore unaccounted for. In general,
the experiments indicate that the inferences drawn from conditional
assertions display a rich and varied pattern that involves not only
logical reasoning but moreover the subject's background knowledge and

Part III: The Case of Scalar Implicatures

The final four chapters of the book all deal with scalar implicatures, a
traditionally hot topic in pragmatics, but now hot in experimental
pragmatics as well, as illustrated by this separate book-part addressing
the implicature debate.

Three of the chapters on implicatures deal with the debate between two
competing theories of pragmatic inferences. According to the "default"
theory (for instance, Levinson 2000, referred to as the prototypical
version of such a theory in several chapters), implicatures are
automatically associated with a term. That is, the use of an expression
that is relatively weak on a scale automatically implicates the denial of
the stronger expressions on that scale. For instance, "some" is per
default interpreted as "some but not all." Only when the inference is
found to be incompatible with other information, can the implicature be
retracted. The opposing theory (for instance Relevance Theory) views the
weak interpretation as most salient to the term and assumes that
implicatures involve processing effort.

Anne Bezuidenhout and Robin Morris study what happens when subjects have
to process a (small) text containing a scalar term, where the utterances
eventually do not support the implicature, but do support the weak
interpretation of the term. In the "default" model, initial smooth
processing is predicted with an eventually costly retracting of the
default inference. In what they call the "underspecification model"
(inspired by relevance theory), it is predicted that there will be no need
for reanalysis, but that during processing the weak reading will simply be
strengthened more and more. Bezuidenhout and Morris performed two eye-
tracking experiments to test these predictions. The results are clearly
compatible with the underspecification model. However, as the authors
argue, the results do not so clearly falsify the default model.
Nevertheless, Bezuidenhout and Morris stress that eye-tracker data like
these are extremely valuable for the theoretical debate. Eye-tracker
results do not just tell us whether or not people are aware of
implicatures, but moreover indicate when in the comprehension process such
inferences are made.

Also focusing on the debate between the "default" framework and models
inspired by Relevance Theory is the chapter by Ira Noveck. He focuses on a
specific developmental-pragmatic effect: children tend to give a weak
logical interpretation to weak logical terms like "or", "some" or "might."
For instance, children are much more likely to interpret "or" as inclusive
than adults (who prefer the non-logical stronger exclusive
interpretation). Both competing theories may offer an explanation for this
effect. According to Relevance Theory, the logical meaning is minimal. The
effect is then explained by assuming that the capacity for making
pragmatic inferences is increased with age. The default model could
explain the effect by assuming that pragmatic inferences only turn into
defaults with age. Noveck argues that these explanations have a testable
difference. Only according to the explanation inspired by Relevance
Theory may the complexity of a task influence the outcome. That is, a
sufficiently effortless task should trigger non-logical interpretations
even with children that normally show to only adopt the weak meaning.
Unfortunately, developmental data is difficult to interpret. Some results
supporting the Relevance Theoretical model, however, are borne out. Very
easy tasks indeed show adult-like behaviour with young children. Moreover,
harder experiments with adult subjects tend to yield more logical

Anne Reboul's chapter also suggests experimental support for the non-
default model of pragmatic inferences. Reboul is interested in
comparatives of the form "Better tea than no coffee." In her experiments,
subjects are asked to interpret such utterances and then to decide whether
the speaker prefers tea or coffee and what he or she was actually given.
She argues that the default model predicts that subjects confronted with
such a comparison end up with an interpretative dead-end, since they will
interpret "tea" as "only tea", rendering the sentence into the
nonsensical "Better only tea than only tea." In two experiments, she shows
that this prediction is not borne out.

The remaining chapter in the part on implicatures concerns a somewhat
different debate on the defaultness of pragmatic inferences. A team of
researchers consisting of Gennaro Chierchia, Maria Teresa Guasti, Andrea
Gualmini, Luisa Meroni, Stephen Crain and Francesca Foppolo offers
experimental results that apply to a theoretical complication introduced
in Chierchia's non-experimental work. Chierchia has argued against a
Gricean theory of pragmatic inferences, where implicatures are post-
propositional "global" inferences.An iImplicature in fact turns out to be
a rather local effect. For example, for a sentence "Mary is either reading
a paper or seeing some students" the resulting implicated reading should
be "Either Mary is reading a paper or she is seeing some students, but she
is not seeing all students." The standard approach, however, seems to
generate an unwanted inference, namely "it is not the case that Mary is
either reading a paper or seeing every student." An additional problem for
implicature computation follows from the observation that implicatures do
not arise in downward entailing (DE) contexts. But since implicatures
emerge locally, how are they going to blocked once embedded in DE-
contexts? In Chierchia's proposal, the so-called Semantic Core Model,
the "plain" and the "scalar" meaning of a sentence are both computed on
the basis of a recursive bottom-up process. These two meanings are
eventually compared and the most informative one is added to the context.
The model explains readily why implicatures surface locally. Since only
the most informative meaning "wins" and negation reverses informativity
scales, the model also accounts for the fact that in DE-contexts scalar
implicatures are not expected. The experiments presented in this chapter
are designed to find support for Chierchia's theoretical model and focus
on how adults and children interpret disjunction in DE and non-DE
contexts. In a first experiment, it is shown that adults derive the
(logical) inclusive reading for "or" rather than the exclusive reading
significantly more often in DE contexts than in non-DE contexts. In a
second experiment, children turn out to accept the inclusive reading
of "or" much more often than adults do. In a third experiment, the
predictions of the Semantic Core Model are tested directly, by asking
subjects to perform a truth-value judgement task on (acted-out) utterances
containing a disjunction embedded in either a DE or a non-DE context.
Adults perform the task as the Semantic Core Model predicts: they compute
the scalar implicature only in the non-DE context. Half the children are
adult-like, while the other half computes the implicatures even in DE
contexts. Using a final experiment, the authors intend to show that the
children's behaviour cannot be accounted for in a Gricean model. By
letting children compare two true utterances one of which is more
informative (and therefore more appropriate) than the other, they test
whether children know Grice's Maxim of Quantity. It turns out that
children perform this task very well. Almost all children are capable of
distinguishing the more appropriate true utterance from the less-
informative true one.


"Experimental pragmatics" is an interesting and valuable contribution to
both linguistic pragmatics and experimental psychology. It offers a clear
outline of a new field and it convincingly shows why an experimental
approach to pragmatics is attractive and indeed necessary.

I can recommend this book to researchers and students of pragmatics,
psycholinguistics and the psychology of reasoning. The individual
chapters are accessible even to readers who are less familiar with
pragmatic theory or experimental methods. The studies in this book are
generally of a high standard.

Clearly, however, the field of experimental pragmatics has not reached
maturity yet. An "experimental pragmatics"-sceptic might claim that
experimental research into pragmatic phenomena has little theoretical
value since the theories in linguistic pragmatics are not explicit enough
to be tested. Such criticism is still very much applicable (even if some
contributing authors in this volume suggest otherwise). I fear that the
theoretical impact of some of the studies is somewhat limited. In quite a
few chapters of this book, it is not entirely clear why a certain theory
makes the predictions the authors claim it does. In my view, this is
because there is still a large gap between the models that are being
tested and the linguistic pragmatic theories these models are based on.
In particular, "standard" theories of pragmatics often fail to make
explicit processing predictions. This is illustrated by the fact that in
several chapters in this book, researchers do not test an existing theory,
but rather their own processing model that is loosely based on one.
Consequently, the falsification of such a model does not necessarily lead
to the falsification of the theory. These critical notes do not mean,
however, that the studies in this book are unconvincing. Overall, the
findings are extremely valuable, even if their direct theoretical
consequences are somewhat limited. The ultimate merit of the field of
experimental pragmatics (and indirectly of this book) is exactly that by
experimentation the theories of pragmatics will gradually lose their
psychological vagueness. The large range of impressive experimental
results that is presented in this book will force theorists to incorporate
explicit experimentally attested processing parameters in their theories.

"Experimental Pragmatics" makes it clear that enormous progress is being
made in this young collaboration between two fields and that the
experimental results will eventually lead to new models of language use.
By doing so, this collection is a big success.


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

Sperber, D., and Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition
(2nd edn). Oxford: Blackwell.


Rick Nouwen is a postdoctoral researcher at the
Graduiertenkolleg "Satzarten," J.W. Goethe-Universität Frankfurt/Main in
Germany. His research has mainly focused on the formal semantics and
pragmatics of plural and quantified anaphora. His current work involves
the meaning and use of quantifiers, with special attention to cognitive
and logical aspects of reference to quantity.

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