The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LFRG 2/24 - Aron Hirsch

Speaker: Aron Hirsch
Title: Covert vs. overt exhaustification and polarity mismatch
Date/Time: Monday, February 24, 12-1:30p
Location: 66-148

When can the answer to a constituent question be interpreted as exhaustive, and when can’t it? This paper establishes a link between exhaustivity and polarity, both for covert exhaustification with exh and overt exhaustification with only. I report two sets of experimental data. Exp. 1 shows that an answer can be parsed with exh only if it and the question match in polarity (following Spector 2005, Uegaki 2013): (1/2a) can be interpreted exhaustively; (1/2b) can only be interpreted as partial answers.

(1) Which of the officers have a beard?
a. (exh) Ryan has a beard.
b. (*exh) Ryan doesn’t have a beard.
c. Only Ryan doesn’t have a beard.

(2) Which of the officers don’t have a beard?
a. (exh) Ryan doesn’t have a beard.
b. (*exh) Ryan does have a beard.
c. Only Ryan does have a beard.

Exp. 2 shows that only has a less restricted distribution than exh, but still shows subtle effects of polarity-sensitivity: only can exhaustify an answer which mismatches the question in polarity, (1/2c), but only if the dialog takes place in the right kind of context. I argue that exh and only both carry a presupposition which requires polarity match. When only occurs with polarity-mismatch, a question of the opposite polarity to the question actually asked is accommodated. I claim that accommodation incurs a cost that economy considerations regulate. Economy differentiates between exh and only, as well as between different contexts with only to predict the full distribution of the operators.