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The symmetry problem: current theories and prospects

Breheny, R; Klinedinst, N; Romoli, J; Sudo, Y; (2017) The symmetry problem: current theories and prospects. Natural Language Semantics 10.1007/s11050-017-9141-z. (In press). Green open access

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Abstract

The structural approach to alternatives (Katzir in Linguist Philos 30(6):669–690, 2007; Fox and Katzir in Nat Lang Semant 19(1):87–107, 2011; Katzir in Semantics, pragmatics and the case of scalar implicatures, Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp 40–71, 2014) is the most developed attempt in the literature at solving the symmetry problem of scalar implicatures. Problematic data with indirect and particularised scalar implicatures have however been raised (Romoli in Snippets 27:14–15, 2013; Trinh and Haida in Nat Lang Semant 25(4):249–270, 2015). To address these problems, Trinh and Haida (2015) proposed to augment the theory with the Atomicity Constraint. Here we show that this constraint falls short of explaining minimal variants of the original problems, and moreover that it runs into trouble with the inferences of sentences involving gradable adjectives like full and empty. We furthermore discuss how the structural approach suffers at times from the problem of ‘too many lexical alternatives’ pointed out by Swanson (Linguist Philos 33(1):31–36, 2010), and at other times from the opposite problem of ‘too few lexical alternatives’. These three problems epitomise the challenge of constructing just enough alternatives under the structural approach to solve the symmetry problem in full generality. Finally, we also sketch another recent attempt at solving the symmetry problem, Bergen et al. (Semant Pragmat 9(20), 2016), which is based on relative informativity and complexity. We argue that Bergen et al. do not provide a general solution to the symmetry problem either, by pointing to some of the open problematic cases that remain for this approach as well. We conclude that while important progress has been made in the theory of alternatives for scalar implicatures in the last few years, a full solution to the symmetry problem has not yet been attained.

Type: Article
Title: The symmetry problem: current theories and prospects
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1007/s11050-017-9141-z
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11050-017-9141-z
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © The Author(s) 2017. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Keywords: Alternatives, Exhaustification, Scalar implicature, Symmetry problem
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences > Div of Psychology and Lang Sciences > Linguistics
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1568030
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