The symmetry problem: current theories and prospects


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.


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For invaluable discussion and feedback we thank Leon Bergen, Danny Fox, Noah Goodman, Andreas Haida, Roni Katzir, Matt Mandelkern, Tue Trinh, and Wataru Uegaki. Work on this project was partially supported by the British Academy Small Grant SG-153-238 to Jacopo Romoli and Yasutada Sudo and by the Leverhulme Trust grant RPG-2016-100 to Jacopo Romoli.

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Correspondence to Jacopo Romoli.

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Breheny, R., Klinedinst, N., Romoli, J. et al. The symmetry problem: current theories and prospects. Nat Lang Semantics 26, 85–110 (2018).

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  • Alternatives
  • Exhaustification
  • Scalar implicature
  • Symmetry problem