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We’ve discovered that projection across conjunction is asymmetric (and it is!)

Abstract

Is the mechanism behind presupposition projection and filtering fundamentally asymmetric or symmetric? This is a foundational question for the theory of presupposition which has been at the centre of attention in recent literature (Schlenker in Theor Linguist 38(3):287–316, 2008b. https://doi.org/10.1515/THLI.2008.021, Semant Pragmat 2(3):1–78, 2009. https://doi.org/10.3765/sp.2.3; Rothschild in Semant Pragmat 4(3):1–43, 2011/2015. https://doi.org/10.3765/sp.4.3 a.o.). It also bears on broader issues concerning the source of asymmetries observed in natural language: are these simply rooted in superficial asymmetries of language use (language use happens in time, which we experience as fundamentally asymmetric); or are they, at least in part, directly encoded in linguistic knowledge and representations? In this paper we aim to make progress on these questions by exploring presupposition projection across conjunction, which has traditionally been taken as a central piece of evidence that presupposition filtering is asymmetric in general. As a number of authors have recently pointed out, however, the evidence which has typically been used to support this conclusion is muddied by independent issues concerning redundancy; additional concerns have to do with the possibility of local accommodation. We report on a series of experiments, building on previous work by Chemla and Schlenker (Nat Lang Semant 20(2):177–226, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11050-012-9080-7) and Schwarz (in: Schwarz (ed) Experimental perspectives on presuppositions, Springer, Cham, 2015), using inference and acceptability tasks, which aim to control for both of these potential confounds. In our results, we find strong evidence for left-to-right filtering across conjunctions, but no evidence for right-to-left filtering—even when right-to-left filtering would, if available, rescue an otherwise unacceptable sentence. These results suggest that presupposition filtering across conjunction is asymmetric, contra suggestions in the recent literature (Schlenker in Theor Linguist 34(3):157–212, 2008a. https://doi.org/10.1515/THLI.2008.013, 2009 a.o.), and pave the way for the investigation of further questions about the nature of this asymmetry and presupposition projection more generally. Our results also have broader implications for the study of presupposition: we find important differences in the verdicts of acceptability versus inference tasks in testing for projected content, which has both methodological ramifications for the question of how to distinguish presupposed content, and theoretical repercussions for understanding the nature of projection and presuppositions more generally.

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Correspondence to Matthew Mandelkern.

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We gratefully acknowledge audiences in Genoa, Utrecht, Göttingen, San Diego, Sydney, Milan, Frankfurt, Cornell, at the 30th CUNY, and at SALT 27; RA support from Nikhil Lakhani and Carissa Redfield; valuable discussion with an anonymous referee for this journal, Pranav Anand, Gennaro Chierchia, Alexandre Cremers, Daniel Rothschild, Philippe Schlenker, Robert Stalnaker, and Yoad Winter; and financial support from NSF-Grant BCS-1349009 to Florian Schwarz.

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Mandelkern, M., Zehr, J., Romoli, J. et al. We’ve discovered that projection across conjunction is asymmetric (and it is!). Linguist and Philos 43, 473–514 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-019-09276-5

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Keywords

  • Presupposition projection
  • Presupposition filtering
  • Asymmetry
  • Conjunction
  • Semantics-pragmatics interface
  • Experimental linguistics