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Choice and prohibition in non-monotonic contexts


Disjunctions in the scope of possibility modals give rise to a conjunctive inference, generally referred to as ‘free choice.’ For example, Emma can take Spanish or Calculus suggests that Emma can take Spanish and can take Calculus. This inference is not valid on standard semantics for modals in combination with a Boolean semantics for disjunction. Hence free choice has sparked a whole industry of theories in philosophy of language and semantics. This paper investigates free choice in sentences involving a non-monotonic modified numeral, under which we embed a possibility modal scoping over disjunction. One example is Exactly one student can(not) take Spanish or Calculus. As we point out, the presence (or absence) of certain readings of these sentences is a key test for a prominent approach, which analyzes free choice as a kind of scalar implicature. We report on two experiments investigating the readings of such sentences, using an inferential task. Our results are challenging for the implicature approach. We sketch two possible solutions within this approach, either adopting a different recent implicature algorithm, or exploring a different meaning for modified numerals with exactly. Both of them suffer from a variety of problems. We then discuss a third solution, which exploits a recent account of free choice based on homogeneity. This approach can account for our results, in combination with plausible assumptions about homogeneity projection, though it too has open issues with related cases. Regardless of which solution is chosen, non-monotonic contexts turn out to be an important test case for theories of free choice, implicature, and modified numerals.


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For very helpful discussion and suggestions we thank Maria Aloni, Amir Anvari, Moysh Bar-Lev, Danny Fox, Simon Goldstein, Nathan Klinedinst, Angelika Kratzer, Matt Mandelkern, Paul Marty, Philippe Schlenker, Benjamin Spector, Yasu Sudo, Malte Willer, and audiences at SALT28 MIT and in Amsterdam, Paris, London, and Berlin. This work was financially supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) as part of the Initiative (BE 4348/4-1) and the Leverhulme Trust Grant RPG-2018-425. Experiment 1 of this paper was published in the Proceedings of SALT 28. The current paper goes substantially beyond the proceedings paper in terms of theoretical discussion and empirical findings. Author names are listed alphabetically.

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Correspondence to Nicole Gotzner.

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Gotzner, N., Romoli, J. & Santorio, P. Choice and prohibition in non-monotonic contexts. Nat Lang Semantics 28, 141–174 (2020).

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  • Free choice
  • Modified numerals
  • Implicatures
  • Homogeneity