Resolving scope ambiguity: Lexicon, pragmatics, information structure

Publication type Article
Status Published
National Research University Higher School of Economics
Vinogradov Russian Language Institute
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameVoprosy Jazykoznanija
EditionIssue 2

This paper presents a corpus study of factors involved in disambiguating potentially ambiguous sentences with negation and universal quantifier all in written English, such as I haven’t heard all these details. Ambiguity in such sentences results from potential differences in scope assignment. If negation scopes over the quantifier, we get the interpretation of partial negation: ‘I have heard some of these details’. If negation scopes over the verb, we get the interpretation of total negation: ‘I haven’t heard any of these details’.

While there is abundant research on the phenomenon of scope ambiguity and its disambiguation via prosody, syntax and semantics, less is known about the pragmatic mechanisms that allow speakers to infer intended scope readings from the lexical environment in actual texts. In order to study the correlation between the lexical set-up of not + Verb + all sentences, their pragmatically plausible interpretations, their information structure, and their scope readings in actual usage, we analyze about 1500 sentences extracted from EnTenTen15 Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American. Our study demonstrates that diff erent lexical instantiations of this construction are associated with diff erent pragmatic scenarios and, hence, with diff erent information structures and scope readings.

The interpretations of partial negation (quantifier negation) and total negation (verb negation) differ with respect to semantics, pragmatics and information structure. Namely, a focused quantifier produces partial negation, while a focused verb produces total negation. Quantifier negation entails literal interpretation of the quantifier all in its direct quantificational meaning (I haven’t talked to [all] my students); verb negation mostly entails emphatic interpretation of all in its meaning of negative emphasis (I don’t [want] to talk to all these idiots).

Quantifier negation is considerably more frequent than verb negation due to its pragmatic neutrality. In the absence of verb negation markers, it is the default interpretation of V not all structures. Because of its association with quantifi cation, quantifi er negation frequently occurs in the context of predicates that take a quantifi cational argument as a direct object (to include, to list, to finish), or easily allow quantifiable or multiple objects (to know, to meet requirements, to answer criteria). Such predicates are conducive both to placing the quantifier in the focus and interpreting it in its literal quantificational meaning: He didn’t list [all] the requirements; The candidate doesn’t answer [all] the criteria. Verb negation usually occurs with temporal modifi ers containing all (such as all night) because they are conducive to placing the verb in the focus: I haven’t [slept] all night. Verb negation also occurs with emphatic demonstratives and negatively connoted lexical items because they consolidate the emphatic interpretation of the quantifier all: I don’t [want] to hear all these disgusting details.

Keywordsinformation structure, negation, pragmatics, quantifiers, scope, semantics
AcknowledgmentThe publication was prepared within the framework of the Academic Fund Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in 2018–2019 (grant No. 18-01-0007 “Factors in resolving scope ambiguity”) and by the Russian Academic Excellence Project “5-100”. I would also like to thank my anonymous reviewers for their suggestions.
Publication date25.06.2020
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1 1. Introduction
2 This paper considers the correlation between lexicon, pragmatics and information structure in the interpretation of scope ambiguities in English sentences with predicate negation1 and uni- versal quantifier, such as (1) I haven’t talked to all these students.
3 Negation can scope either over the universal quantifier, producing the interpretation of par- tial negation ‘I have talked only to part of these students’, or over the verb, producing the inter- pretation of total negation ‘I haven’t talked to any of these students’. The scope of negation is decided on the basis of information structure, as demonstrated by [Jackendoff 1972: 248–273]; namely, the operator (in this case, negation) scopes over the ൿඈർඎඌ of the utterance. Scope am- biguities are a well-studied area of linguistics; consider [Jespersen 1924; Klima 1964; Hintikka 1973; Cooper 1979; Gil 1982; Aoun, Li 1989; Horn 1989; Partee 1993; Reinhart 1997; Kiss 2006], to mention just a few seminal works. There is also plentiful research on the role of information structure in determining scope [Jackendoff 1972; Sgall et al. 1973; Partee 1991; Hajičova 1998]. Many recent experimental studies on scope disambiguation examine the role of prosody in the detection of the intended scope reading and its ties with information structure [Kadmon, Rob- erts 1986; Koizumi 2009; Ionin 2010; Syrett et al. 2014]. Other research on disambiguation fo- cuses on syntactic clues [Kurtzman, MacDonald 1993]; on respective probabilities of possible readings [Hurum 1988]; on general structural and semantic principles of scope disambiguation, such as “economic stance” [Tunstall 1998]. While the role of information structure in scope disambiguation is paramount, we suggest that in written text, where prosodic information is unavailable, information structure is ultimately inferred via pragmatic reasoning. Pragmatically different situations are associated with differ- ent lexical environment. Thus, the objective of this research is to find correlations between the lexical filling of not + Verb + all strings and standard pragmatic scenarios associated with each lexicalization pattern, on the one hand, and typical information structures and scope readings, on the other.
4 2. Hypothesis and approach
5 Our approach in this paper is based on some of the claims and results presented in [V. Apres- jan 2019], mainly relative to the Russian data. Namely, we assume that different information structures of not + Verb + all sentences, which result in different scope readings of negation, are associated with different kinds of pragmatic scenarios and, therefore, with different lexical expression. Thus, lexical environment can be used as a clue to infer the intended scope readings. We expect to demonstrate that the two ma- jor scope readings of negation in not + Verb + all sentences, namely, negated quantifier read- ing and negated verb reading, possess their own distinct lexical markers. Certain pragmatically plausible readings are to a large extent lexicalized. We aspire to study the typical collocational patterns of not + Verb + all sentences and demon- strate that they are associated with particular pragmatic scenarios and, hence, with specific in- formation structures and scope readings.
6 1 Following [Paducheva 1974], we use this term in its syntactic sense, namely, to describe negation that is syntactically attached to the predicate (but semantically can have scope over other constituents in the sentence).
7 3. Methods and materials
8 The study is based on samples extracted from Corpus of Contemporary American [COCA], which is a balanced 560-million-token corpus spanning 1990–2015, and [EnTenTen15] Corpus on Sketch Engine, which is a 19-billion-token Web-based corpus, crawled and processed during the last ten years. Our main samples used to analyze the distribution of readings and identify their contextual markers include 200 examples from each corpus.2 They have been randomly selected from the results of the search query not + Verb + all, after manually excluding all irrel- evant contexts. Irrelevant contexts included: — idiomatic constructions, such as He isn’t all that smart; — clauses with factive predicates which allow only verb-negated readings because the em- bedded proposition is presupposed, such as I didn’t know all the students were late; — clauses with non-factive predicates which allow only quantifier-negated readings, because the embedded proposition is asserted, such as I didn’t think all the students were late; — rhetoric questions and unreal conditionals which presuppose the truthfulness of the ne- gated proposition, such as Haven’t I said all this before?, If he hadn’t spent all the money gambling, he’d have bought himself a new suit.
9 Our search query does not include sentences of all + Noun + Verb + not structure, with the quantifier all in the subject.3 In principle, this string allows both quantifier-negated (Q-negated) and verb-negated (V-negated) interpretations:

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