Skip to main content

Scalar implicatures of embedded disjunction


Sentences with disjunction in the scope of a universal quantifier, Every A is P or Q, tend to give rise to distributive inferences that each of the disjuncts holds of at least one individual in the domain of the quantifier, Some A is P & Some A is Q. These inferences are standardly derived as an entailment of the meaning of the sentence together with the scalar implicature that it is not the case that either disjunct holds of every individual in the domain of the quantifier, \({\neg}\) Every A is P & \({\neg}\) Every A is Q (plain negated inferences). As we show, this derivation faces a challenge in that distributive inferences may obtain in the absence of plain negated inferences. We address this challenge by showing that on particular assumptions about alternatives, a derivation of distributive inferences as scalar implicatures can be maintained without in fact necessitating plain negated inferences. These assumptions accord naturally with the grammatical approach to scalar implicatures. We also present experimental data that suggest that plain negated inferences are not only unnecessary for deriving distributive inferences, but might in fact be unavailable.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Bott L., Noveck I.A. (2004) Some utterances are underinformative: The onset and time course of scalar inferences. Journal of Memory and Language 51(3): 437–457

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Braine, M.D., and B. Rumain. 1981. Development of comprehension of ‘or:’ Evidence for a sequence of competencies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 31: 46–70.

  • Chemla, E., and B. Spector. 2011. Experimental evidence for embedded scalar implicatures. Journal of Semantics 28: 359–400.

  • Chierchia, G. 2010. Meaning as an inferential system: Polarity and free choice phenomena. Manuscript, Harvard University.

  • Chierchia, G., D. Fox, and B. Spector. 2011. The grammatical view of scalar implicatures and the relationship between semantics and pragmatics. In Handbook of semantics, ed. P. Portner, C. Maienborn, and K. von Heusinger, 2297–2332. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

  • Crnič L. (2013) Focus particles and embedded exhaustification. Journal of Semantics 30(4): 533–558

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fox, D. 2007. Free choice and the theory of scalar implicatures. In Presupposition and implicature in compositional semantics, ed. U. Sauerland, and P. Stateva, 71–120. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Fox, D. 2013. Cancelling the maxim of quantity: Another challenge for a Gricean theory of scalar implicatures. Manuscript, MIT & HUJI (to appear in Semantics and Pragmatics).

  • Fox, D., and M. Hackl. 2006. The universal density of measurement. Linguistics and Philosophy 29: 537–586.

  • Fox, D., and R. Katzir. 2011. On the characterization of alternatives. Natural Language Semantics 19(1): 87–107.

  • Fox, D., and B. Spector. 2009. Economy and embedded exhaustification. Handout from a talk at Cornell, MIT & ENS.

  • Gazdar, G. 1979. Pragmatics: Implicature, presupposition, and logical form. New York: Academic Press.

  • Geurts, B., and N. Pouscoulous. 2009. Embedded implicatures?!? Semantics and Pragmatics 2: 1–34.

  • Groenendijk, J., and M. Stokhof. 1984. Studies in the semantics of questions and the pragmatics of answers. PhD dissertation, University of Amsterdam.

  • Gualmini, A., S. Hulsey, V. Hacquard, and D. Fox. 2008. The question–answer requirement for scope assignment. Natural Language Semantics 16: 205–237.

  • Horn, L.R. 1984. Toward a new taxonomy for pragmatic inference. In Form and use in context: Linguistic applications, ed. D. Schiffrin. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

  • Ippolito, M. 2010. Embedded implicatures? Remarks on the debate between globalist and localist theories. Semantics and Pragmatics 3: 1–15.

  • Ippolito, M. 2011. A note on embedded implicatures and counterfactual presuppositions. Journal of Semantics 28(2): 267–278.

  • Ivlieva, N. 2013. Scalar implicatures and the grammar of plurality and disjunction. PhD dissertation, MIT.

  • Katzir R. (2007) Structurally defined alternatives. Linguistics and Philosophy 30: 669–690

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Katzir, R. 2013. On the roles of markedness and contradiction in the use of alternatives. Manuscript, Tel Aviv University.

  • Kratzer, A., and J. Shimoyama. 2002. Indeterminate pronouns: The view from Japanese. Paper presented at the 3rd Tokyo Conference on Psycholinguistics.

  • Levinson, S. 2000. Presumptive meanings: The theory of generalized conversational implicature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Magri G. (2009) A theory of individual level predicates based on blind mandatory scalar implicatures. Natural Language Semantics 17: 245–297

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Magri, G. 2011. Another argument for embedded scalar implicatures based on oddness in downward entailing environments. Semantics and Pragmatics 4(6): 1–51.

  • Matsumoto, Y. 1995. The conversational condition on Horn scales. Linguistics and Philosophy 18(1): 21–60.

  • Mayol, L., and E. Castroviejo. 2013. How to cancel an implicature. Journal of Pragmatics 50(1): 84–104.

  • Meyer, M.-C. 2012. Generalized free choice and missing alternatives. In Proceedings of CLS 48. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

  • Noveck, I.A. 2000. When children are more logical than adults: Experimental investigations of scalar implicature. Cognition 78(2): 165–188.

  • Roberts, C. 2012. Information structure in discourse: Towards an integrated formal theory of pragmatics. Semantics and Pragmatics 5(6): 1–69. (First appeared in Jae Hak Yoon and Andreas Kathol (eds.) OSUWPL Volume 49: Papers in Semantics, 1996. The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics.)

  • Rooth, M. 1992. A theory of focus interpretation. Natural Language Semantics 1(1): 75–116.

  • Russell B. (2006) Against grammatical computation of scalar implicatures. Journal of Semantics 23: 361–382

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sauerland, U. 2004. Scalar implicatures in complex sentences. Linguistics and Philosophy 27(3): 367–391.

  • Schwarzschild, R. 1996. Pluralities. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

  • Singh, R., K. Wexler, A. Astle, D. Kamawar, and D. Fox. 2013. Disjunction, acquisition, and the theory of scalar implicatures. Manuscript, Carleton University, MIT, Hebrew University Jerusalem.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luka Crnič.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Crnič, L., Chemla, E. & Fox, D. Scalar implicatures of embedded disjunction. Nat Lang Semantics 23, 271–305 (2015).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Scalar implicatures
  • Disjunction
  • Embedded exhaustification