Congratulations to Prof. Elizabeth Coppock on the publication of “Ignorance implicatures of modified numerals” (with Alexandre Cremers, Jakub Dotlačil, and Floris Roelofsen) in Linguistics and Philosophy!
Abstract: Modified numerals, such as at least three and more than five, are known to sometimes give rise to ignorance inferences. However, there is disagreement in the literature regarding the nature of these inferences, their context dependence, and differences between at least and more than. We present a series of experiments which sheds new light on these issues. Our results show that (a) the ignorance inferences of at least are more robust than those of more than, (b) the presence and strength of the ignorance inferences triggered by both at least and more than depends on the question under discussion (QUD), and (c) whether ignorance inferences are detected in a given experimental setting depends partly on the task that participants are asked to perform (e.g., an acceptability task versus an inference task). We offer an Optimality Theoretic account of these findings. In particular, the task effect is captured by assuming that in performing an acceptability task, participants take the speaker’s perspective in order to determine whether an expression is optimal given a certain epistemic state, while in performing an inference task they take the addressee’s perspective in order to determine what the most likely epistemic state of the speaker is given a certain expression. To execute the latter task in a fully rational manner, participants have to perform higher-order reasoning about alternative expressions the speaker could have used. Under the assumption that participants do not always perform such higher-order reasoning but also often resort to so-called unidirectional optimization, the task effect finds a natural explanation. This also allows us to relate our finding to asymmetries between comprehension and production that have been found in language acquisition.