Elena Pagliarini, Cory Bill, Jacopo Romoli, Lyn Tieu, & Stephen Crain. 2017. “On children’s variable success with scalar inferences: Insights from disjunction in the scope of a universal quantifier.” Ms., Universitat Pompeu Fabra/Ulster University/Macquarie University.

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Abstract: Previous developmental studies have revealed variation in children’s ability to compute scalar inferences. While children have been shown to struggle with standard scalar inferences (e.g., from scalar quantifiers like some) (Noveck 2001, Chierchia et al. 2001, Papafragou and Musolino 2003, Guasti et al. 2005), there is also a growing handful of inferences that children have been reported to derive readily (Papafragou and Musolino 2003, Barner and Bachrach 2010, Stiller et al. 2015, Tieu et al. 2016, Hochstein et al. 2016). One recent approach, which we refer to as the Alternatives-based approach, attributes the variability in children’s performance to limitations in how children engage with the alternative sentences that are required to compute the relevant inferences. According to this approach, if the alternative sentences are a component part of the test sentences, children should be better able to compute the inference. In this paper, we investigated this prediction by assessing how children and adults interpret sentences that embed disjunction under a universal quantifier, such as every elephant caught a big butterfly or a small butterfly. These sentences give rise to the distributive inference that some elephant caught a big butterfly and some elephant caught a small butterfly (Gazdar 1979, Fox 2007, Crnič et al. 2015). It has been argued that this inference is derived using alternatives that are contained within the test sentence, making these sentences an ideal test case for evaluating the predictions of the Alternatives-based approach. The findings of our experimental study reveal that children are indeed able to successfully compute distributive inferences at adult-like rates; moreover, we also observe evidence for the presence of a conjunctive inference, i.e. every elephant caught both a big butterfly and a small butterfly, previously reported in studies by Singh et al. (2016) and Tieu et al. (2017). Both of these findings are in line with the predictions of the Alternatives-based approach, and provide support for it as a viable explanation of children’s variable success in computing scalar inferences.


Keywords: implicatures, language acquisition, distributive inference, pragmatics, disjunction, universal quantification