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A theory of individual-level predicates based on blind mandatory scalar implicatures

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Predicates such as tall or to know Latin, which intuitively denote permanent properties, are called individual-level predicates. Many peculiar properties of this class of predicates have been noted in the literature. One such property is that we cannot say #John is sometimes tall. Here is a way to account for this property: this sentence sounds odd because it triggers the scalar implicature that the alternative John is always tall is false, which cannot be, given that, if John is sometimes tall, then he always is. This intuition faces two challenges. First: this scalar implicature has a weird nature, since it must be surprisingly robust (otherwise, it could be cancelled and the sentence rescued) and furthermore blind to the common knowledge that tallness is a permanent property (since this piece of common knowledge makes the two alternatives equivalent). Second: it is not clear how this intuition could be extended to other, more complicated properties of individual-level predicates. The goal of this paper is to defend the idea of an implicature-based theory of individual-level predicates by facing these two challenges. In the first part of the paper, I try to make sense of the weird nature of these special mismatching implicatures within the recent grammatical framework for scalar implicatures of Chierchia (Structures and beyond, 2004) and Fox (2007). In the second part of the paper, I show how this implicature-based line of reasoning can be extended to more complicated properties of individual-level predicates, such as restrictions on the interpretation of their bare plural subjects, noted in Carlson (Reference to kinds in English. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1977), Milsark (Linguistic Analysis 3.1: 1–29, 1977), and Fox (Natural Language Semantics 3: 283–341, 1995); restrictions on German word order, noted in Diesing (Indefinites, 1992); and restrictions on Q-adverbs, noted in Kratzer (The Generic Book, ed. Carlson and Pelletier, 125–175, 1995).

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Correspondence to Giorgio Magri.

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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at SALT16; at the Theory Group of Harvard University; at the LF Reading Group of MIT; and at the “MIT-France Workshop on Implicatures and Presuppositions.” I thank the audiences at these institutions for valuable comments. I wish to thank Gennaro Chierchia, Kai von Fintel, Danny Fox, and Irene Heim for detailed comments on various versions of this paper and significant suggestions. I also wish to thank Emmanuel Chemla, Ezra Keshet, Benjamin Spector, and Philippe Schlenker. Finally, I wish to thank Christine Bartels for her editorial help.

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Magri, G. A theory of individual-level predicates based on blind mandatory scalar implicatures. Nat Lang Semantics 17, 245–297 (2009).

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