The Processing Costs of Presupposition Accommodation


The present study investigates the processing of presupposition accommodation. In particular, it concerns the processing costs and the time-course of accommodation as compared to presupposition satisfaction. Data collected in a self-paced word-by-word reading times experiment support three results. First, independently on the presupposition trigger in use, accommodation is costlier than satisfaction. Second, presupposition accommodation takes places immediately just as the trigger becomes available and proceeds incrementally during the sentence processing. Third, accommodated information is harder to be recalled. The results offer evidence for the on-line processing of presuppositions and, consistently with the traditional semantic framework, support the idea that, presuppositions are semantic properties encoded in the lexical meaning of the presupposition triggers.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  1. 1.

    Note, however, that in some cases the hearer may resist accommodating in case the presupposition is controversial or surprising (von Fintel 2008).

  2. 2.

    The idea that the use of a presupposition trigger activates a procedure of context check is not a foregone conclusion for Heim’s view. Zeevat (1992), for example, distinguishes two kinds of presupposition triggers: resolution triggers and lexical triggers. Resolution triggers are expressions like again, even or the focus-sensitive particle too which involve the anaphoric retrivial of an entity or an eventuality from the common ground; lexical triggers like regret, or like change of state verbs (e.g. stop) directly encode in their conventional meaning a precondition for their asserted content, with the consequence that no anaphoric process is activated. According to Heim’s semantic framework, with lexical triggers, it could be the case that in understanding a presupposing utterance the hearer is just aware of what is or is not common ground without having to perform any control procedure on the context.

  3. 3.

    It is worth noting that this idea has been recently criticized by Abrusan (2011). Abrusan argues that soft and hard triggers (Abusch 2010) do not activate different types of presuppositions (i.e., semantic and pragmatic) and that the presuppositions of the soft triggers do not need to be assimilated to conversational implicatures.

  4. 4.

    Formally: [[give up]]w,t = \(\lambda \)P<i,et>. \(\lambda \)x. \(\exists \) t’: t’ < t and P(t’)(x). \(\sim \)P(t)(x)—cf. Kratzer and Heim (1998).

  5. 5.

    As a result, we have the presupposition that someone was smoking at an antecedent time: [[give up smoking]]w,t = [[give up]]w,t ([[smoking]]w) = [\(\lambda \)P<i,et>. \(\lambda x\). \(\exists \) t’: t’ < t and P(t’)(x). \(\sim \)P(t)(x)] ([\(\lambda \)t”.\(\lambda \)y. y smokes at t”]) = \(\lambda x\). \(\exists \) t’: t’ < t and [\(\lambda \)t”.\(\lambda y\). y smokes at t”](t’)(x). \(\sim \)[\(\lambda \)t”.\(\lambda y\). y smokes at t”](t)(\(x)=\lambda x\). \(\exists \) t’: t’ < t and x smokes at t’. \(\sim x\) smokes at t.

  6. 6.

    As in Tiemann et al. (2015).

  7. 7.

    In this respect, we follow the strategy adopted by Haviland and Clark (1974) themselves and by Tiemann et al. (2015).

  8. 8.

    English (literal) translation:

    Context sentences 1: Before her pregnancy Gaia smoked ten cigarettes per day (SAT condition) / Gaia is at the third month of her first pregnacny (NEU condition).

    Context sentence 2: The possible fetal diseases scare her a lot.

    Target sentence: From the very beginning she has given up smoking but her worries remained the same.

  9. 9.

    While the triggering point was set in 5\(^{th}\) position to coincide with the position of the trigger, the computation point was set in 7\(^{th}\) (two words later) because, for example, in a sentence like “Mark has given up smoking”, in Italian the preposition is mandatory before an infinitive verb like “fumare”: Mark ha smesso di fumare.

  10. 10.

    In some cases, in order to preserve the naturaleness of some items we have been forced to include discourse referents with definite phrases. In any case, in order to be sure that our results were not affected by any slight difference across items, we included the item factor in the random structure of our stastistical models.

  11. 11.

    For example, when the context sentence 1 was “Mark works in a company with a designer” and the target sentence was “One month ago, the designer has submitted his resignation due to problems with his boss” the question task in the norming studies was: “How plausible/predictable is it that there is a designer in a company?”.

  12. 12.

    We thank an anonimous referee for very useful comments concerning this part of data interpretation.

  13. 13.

    In our view, the observed local effects constitute a probematic evidence only for pragmatic accounts à la Simons, according to which “presuppositions are not attached to atomic clauses, but are inferences derivable from the utterance as a whole, given the conversational situation” (Simons 2001:16). It is important to stress that the detection of local effects can be compatible with other pragmatic accounts of presuppositions (e.g. Schlenker 2007, 2008) and, more generally, with other kinds of pragmatic processing like scalar implicatures (Chemla and Singh 2014; Chemla et al. 2017).

  14. 14.

    We thank an anonimous reviewer fo this helpful comment.

  15. 15.

    Note that the pattern of results emerged from this last analysis is consistent with Haviland and Clark (1974), where longer processing times were still found in the indirect antecedent condition (our ACC) than in the direct one (our SAT) even when the information was equally repeated in both conditions (see Exp 2).

  16. 16.

    Interestingly, Loftus and Zanni (1975) found that, compared to questions regarding the contents of a movie containing an indefinite article, the questions which contained a definite article produced fewer uncertain responses about the existence of the reference and a greater number of false recognitions. Such a result seems in contrast with our main claim that accommodation makes the recall of the information harder. The false recognition procedure, in fact, should ease the recall of a presupposed information conveyed via accommodation. This aspect cries out for future investigation in order to establish whether participants’ recalling of an information in condition of accommodation is either the result of actual recovering or of a false recognition effect.


  1. Abrusan, M. (2011). Predicting the presuppositions of soft triggers. Linguistics and Philosophy, 34(6), 491–535.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Abusch, D. (2005). Triggering from alternative sets and projection of pragmatic presuppositions. Ms., Cornell University.

  3. Abusch, D. (2010). Presupposition triggering from alternatives. Journal of Semantics, 27(1), 37–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Altmann, G., & Steedman, M. (1988). Interaction with context during human sentence processing. Cognition, 38, 419–439.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Amaral, P., & Cummins, C. (2015). A cross-linguistic study on information backgrounding and presupposition projection. In F. Schwarz (Ed.), Experimental perspectives on presuppositions (pp. 157–172). Springer International Publishing.

  6. Bates, D., Mächler, M., Bolker, B., Walker, S., Christensen, R. H. B., Singmann, H., et al. (2015). L. Package ‘lme4’. Convergence, 12, 1.

  7. Chemla, E., Cummins, C., & Singh, R. (2017). Training and timing local scalar enrichments under global pragmatic pressures. Journal of Semantics, 34(1), 107–126.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Chemla, E., & Singh, R. (2014). Remarks on the experimental turn in the study of scalar implicature—Part I & II. Language and Linguistic Compass, 8(9), 373–399.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Cummins, C., Amaral, P., & Katsos, N. (2012). Experimental investigations of the typology of presupposition triggers. Humana Mente, 23, 1–16.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Domaneschi, F., Carrea, E., Penco, C., & Greco, A. (2014a). The cognitive load of presupposition triggers: Mandatory and optional repairs in presupposition failure. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29(1), 136–146.

  11. Domaneschi, F., Carrea, E., Penco, C., & Greco, A. (2014b). Propositional attitudes towards presuppositions. An experimental approach. Pragmatics and Cognition, 22(3), 291–309.

  12. Domaneschi, F., Canal, P., Masia, V., Vallauri Lombardi, E., & Bambini, V. (2018). N400 and P600 modulation in presupposition accommodation: The effect of different trigger types. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 45, 13–35.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Donnellan, K. S. (1966). Reference and definite descriptions. The Philosophical Review, 75(3), 281–304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Frazier, L. (2006). The big fish in a small pond: Accommodation and the processing of novel definites. Amherst: University of Massachussetts (Unpublished manuscript).

  15. Glanzberg, M. (2003). Felicity and presupposition triggers. Michigan: University of Michigan Workshop in Philosophy and Linguistics.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Haviland, S. E., & Clark, H. H. (1974). What’s new? Acquiring new information as a process in comprehension. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 512–521.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Heim, I. R. (1982). The semantics of definite and indefinite noun phrases. Amherst: University of Massachussetts (Doctral dissertation).

  18. Heim, I. R. (1983). On the projection problem for presuppositions. In M. Barlow, D. Flickinger, & N. Wiegand (Eds.),Proceedings of the WCCFL 2 (pp. 114–125). Stanford: Stanford University.

  19. Heim, I. (1990). Presupposition projection. In R. van der Sandt (Ed.), Reader for the Nijmegen workshop on presupposition, lexical meaning, and discourse processes. Nijmegen: University of Nijmegen.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Kamp, H. (1981). A theory of truth and semantic representation. In J. A. G. Groenendijk, T. M. V. Janssen, & M. B. J. Stokhof (Eds.), Formal methods in the study of language. Mathematical centre tracts 135 (pp. 277–322). Amsterdam.

  21. Kamp, H., & Reyle, U. (1993). From discourse to logic. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Karttunen, L. (1974). Presupposition and linguistic context. Theoretical Linguistics, 1, 181–194.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Kratzer, A., & Heim, I. (1998). Semantics in generative grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Levinson, S. C. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Lewis, D. (1979). Scorekeeping in a language game. Journal of Philosophical Logic, 8, 339–359.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Loftus, E. F., & Zanni, G. (1975). Eyewitness testimony: The influence of wording of a question. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 5(1), 86–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Schlenker, P. (2007). Anti-dynamics: Presupposition projection without dynamic semantics. Journal of Logic, Language and Information, 16(3), 325–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Schlenker, P. (2008). Be articulate: A pragmatic theory of presupposition. Theoretical Linguistics, 34, 157–212.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Schwarz, F. (2007). Processing presupposed content. Journal of Semantics, 24(4), 373–416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Schwarz, F. (Ed.). (2015). Experimental perspectives on presupposition, studies in theoretical psycholinguistics. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Simons, M. (2001). On the conversational basis of some presuppositions. Semantics and Linguistic Theory, 11, 431–448.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Singh, R., Fedorenko, E., Mahowald, K., & Gibson, E. (2016). Accommodating presuppositions is inappropriate in implausible contexts. Cognitive Science, 40(3), 607–634.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  33. Stalnaker, R. (1974). Pragmatic presuppositions. In M. Munitz & P. Under (Eds.), Semantics and philosophy (pp. 197–213). New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Tiemann, S., Kirsten, M., Beck, S., Hertrich, I., & Rolke, B. (2015). Presupposition processing and accommodation: An experiment on wieder (‘again’) and consequences for other triggers, in Schwarz (2015), 39–65.

  35. Tiemann, S., Schmid, M., Bade, N., Rolke, B., Hertrich, I., Ackermann, H., et al. (2011). Psycholinguistic evidence for presuppositions: On-line and off-line data. In I. Reich, et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of the Sinn & Bedeutung, (Vol. 15, pp. 581–595). Saarbrücken: Saarland University Press.

  36. von Fintel, K. (2008). What is presupposition accommodation, again? Philosophical Perspectives, 22(1), 137–170.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Zeevat, H. (1992). Presupposition and accommodation in update semantics. Journal of Semantics, 9, 379–412.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the \(7^{th}\) Biennal XPrag Conference—June 21 to 23, 2017—University of Cologne (Germany); Workshop Context in Philosophy—20 to 21 June, 2017—Paris (France); Research Seminar—Laboratoire sur le Langage, le Cerveau et la Cognition—Lyon (France); Research Seminar—Department of Linguistics—University of Potsdam (Germany). The paper has greatly benefited from the discussion in all four occasions. In particular, we want to thank Ira Noveck, Richard Breheny, Josep Macià, Nausicaa Pouscoulous, Diana Mazzarella, Nadine Bade, Robert Reinecke, Jacques Jayez, Joseph P. DeVeaugh-Geiss and Malte Zimmermann.

Funding This study was funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research within the three-year project SIR_2014—EXPRESS—Experimenting on Presuppositions directed by Filippo Domaneschi, project code RBSI147WM0.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Filippo Domaneschi.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Domaneschi, F., Di Paola, S. The Processing Costs of Presupposition Accommodation. J Psycholinguist Res 47, 483–503 (2018).

Download citation


  • Experimental pragmatics
  • Presupposition
  • Accommodation
  • Satisfaction
  • Presupposition triggers