Semantically underinformative utterances trigger pragmatic inferences

Abstract

Most theories of pragmatics and language processing predict that speakers avoid informationally redundant utterances. From a processing standpoint, it remains unclear what happens when listeners encounter such utterances, and how they interpret them. We argue that uninformative utterances can trigger pragmatic inferences, which increase utterance utility in line with listener expectations. In this study, we look at utterances that refer to stereotyped event sequences describing common activities (scripts). Literature on processing of event sequences shows that people automatically infer component actions, once a script is 'invoked.' We demonstrate that when comprehenders encounter utterances describing events that can be easily inferred from prior context, they interpret them as signifying that the event conveys new, unstated information. We also suggest that formal models of language comprehension would have difficulty in accurately estimating the predictability or potential processing cost incurred by such utterances.


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