Literal Lucy to the rescue: A new way to distinguish between literal meaning and contextual meaning

Alyson Reed
EurekAlert

Washington, DC – A new linguistic study of how individuals interpret various types of utterances sheds more light on how literal and contextual meaning are distinguished. The study, “A novel empirical paradigm for distinguishing between What is Said and What is Implicated,” to be published in the March 2012 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is authored by Ryan Doran, Gregory Ward, Meredith Larson, Yaron McNabb, and Rachel E. Baker, a team of linguists based at Northwestern University. A preprint version is available online at: http://lsadc.org/info/documents/2012/press-releases/doran-et-al.pdf

Within linguistics and philosophy, two types of utterance meaning have traditionally been distinguished: semantic meaning, based on the literal meaning of the words themselves, and pragmatic meaning, based on how the sentence is used in a particular context. Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of empirical work exploring the line between these two types of meaning. However, few researchers have explored whether and under what conditions speakers can reliably isolate semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning. The new study by the Northwestern researchers does just this.

Using a novel paradigm in which participants assume the point of view of a literal-minded third person, Literal Lucy, the researchers tested whether speakers were able to tease apart semantic meaning from pragmatic meaning. Participants read through short vignettes and determined whether sentences containing certain key phrases (e.g., gradable adjectives, cardinals, quantifiers) were literally still true even in contexts that favored a more natural, pragmatic interpretation.

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