MindCORE Postdoctoral Fellow
via Zoom: https://upenn.zoom.us/j/97106379648
Navigating imprecision: From semantic composition to socio-pragmatic reasoning
Speakers often describe facts imprecisely — e.g., by reporting the time as “3 o’clock” when it’s actually 2:57. This behavior introduces an element of indeterminacy in communication, presenting a challenge to theories of meaning. Relying on two case studies, I illuminate two strategies whereby interlocutors navigate this indeterminacy.
In the first case study, I show how logical operators encoded in the grammar — specifically, exclusive particles as in “the essay was simply/just perfect” — can be used to eliminate the uncertainty introduced by potentially imprecise uses of extreme predicates. I outline an account of these expressions as operators that rule out the assertion-worthiness of more granular alternatives than the one uttered by the speaker, and they thus signal that the predicate should receive an interpretation fully adhering to its literal meaning. In the second case study, I provide experimental evidence that comprehenders recruit social information about the speaker identity to resolve the imprecision linked to numerical expressions, showing that (i) numerals receive stricter interpretations when uttered by speakers embodying a Nerdy (as opposed to Chill) persona; and that (ii) this effect is stronger for comprehenders who don’t identify with the speaker.
Taken together, these findings suggest that imprecision resolution is best captured by an approach that focuses on distinct levels of meaning simultaneously — i.e., ranging from the basic compositional mechanism encoded in the grammar, to higher-level socio-pragmatic reasoning involving the interlocutors’ identities. Accordingly, they call for a more comprehensive view of the notion of context in semantics and pragmatics — one that embraces, and models accordingly, the distinct social profiles of conversational participants, as opposed to treating them as undifferentiated rational agents.