Begoña Vicente Cruz: Speaker cancellation of potential implicatures: Discourse structure and relevance


In this talk I explore the conditions that make speaker cancellation of a potential conversational implicature a pragmatically acceptable conversational move, focusing on quantity inferences. As we would expect, contextual implications that make the utterance relevant as expected are strongly communicated and therefore not felicitously speaker cancelled (Sternau et al 2015, 2017). Quantity implications are no exception to this generalization, but because only when they are involved is it the case that the cancelling phrase entails the meaning of the previous utterance, the question arises as to what justifies this apparently irrational conversational behaviour.

To answer this question Mayol & Castroviejo’s (2013) (M&C) propose a Question Under Discussion Constraint on the cancelling of scalar implicatures (SIs), which predicts that SIs will not be felicitously cancelled when they contribute content to the discourse topic as identified by the focus structure of the utterance.

I show that their constraint applies across the board to all pragmatically derived implications but is always subject to more general contextual relevance conditions that may override it. Specifically, I show that formally identical question-answer sequences containing an SI trigger and the same focal structure will require lower or upper bounding of the scalar depending on what contextual assumptions are accessible in the context of utterance, which will in turn affect the acceptability of a subsequent cancelling phrase.

I argue that the RT account of focus as signalling the main source of effects of the utterance (cf. Sperber & Wilson 1986, Sax 2011) does not run into the difficulties that M&C’s discourse-oriented account comes up against in its predictions of SI cancellability, and more generally, that in so far as processing effort directly affects the likelihood that an SI might be derived as intended, it will also indirectly affect its availability for cancellation.

Mayol, L. & Castroviejo, E. 2013 “How to cancel and implicature”, Journal of Pragmatics 50:84-104.

Sax, D. 2011. “Sentence Stress and the Procedures of Comprehension”, in V. Escandell-Vidal, M. Leonetti & A. Ahern (eds.), Procedural Meaning: Problems and Perspectives. Emerald, 347-381

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. 1986 Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell; Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2nd edition 1995.

Sternau, M., Ariel, M., Giora, R. & Fein, O. 2015 “Levels of interpretation: new tools for characterising intended meanings”, Journal of Pragmatics 84:86-110.

Sternau, M., Ariel, M., Giora, R., Fein, O. 2017 “Deniability and explicatures”, in R. Giora & M. Haugh (eds.) Doing pragmatics interculturally. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, pp. 97-120.

PowerPoint Presentation


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