Evidence in Support of a Scalar Implicature Account of Plurality

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There is increasing evidence that the plural is semantically unmarked for number such that a plural can be interpreted as meaning “at least one.” The 2 experiments reported here used a picture matching paradigm to investigate the conceptual representations built during the comprehension of sentences with plural definite descriptions (e.g., leaves). In Experiment 1, participants read sentences that specified that the objects in the plural were spatially distributed (scattered leaves), spatially grouped (a pile of leaves), or neutral with respect to spatial distribution. After reading the sentence, participants saw a picture that either contained multiple spatially distributed objects, multiple spatially grouped objects, or a single object. In Experiment 2, the sentential context specified a large, uncountable set size, a small set size, or was neutral with respect to set size. The picture that followed either depicted a large set size, a small set size, or a single object. Participants read each sentence and then judged whether the picture was of an object that was in the sentence. Both experiments provided evidence that even when comprehenders build detailed conceptual representations for plural definite descriptions, they have still activated the singular interpretation of the plural. These data are consistent with an account of the plural in which the plural is semantically unmarked for number and the plural meaning is derived via a scalar implicature.

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