Scalar implicatures processing: slowly accepting the truth (literally)


  • Florian Schwarz
  • Jacopo Romoli
  • Cory Bill



The processing of scalar implicatures has been extensively studied in recent years (Bott and Noveck 2004; Bott et al. 2012; Breheny et al. 2006; Huang and Snedeker 2009, Chemla and Bott 2013 among others). Following the work of Bott and Noveck (2004), there has been an ongoing discussion about whether scalar implicatures are delayed in online processing. A second question, discussed more recently, is whether so-called ‘indirect’ scalar implicatures (e.g., John didn’t always go to the movies ? John sometimes went) exhibit the same processing profile as the standard direct ones (e.g., John sometimes went to the movies ? John didn’t always go). Cremers and Chemla (2014) argue that they do, whereas Romoli and Schwarz (2015) find the reverse pattern for indirect scalar implicatures, with slower Reaction Times associated with literal responses. In this paper, we report an experiment investigating two key questions arising from this debate: first, do Reaction Times yield uniform evidence for delayed availability of implicatures? and second, do direct and indirect scalar implicatures display comparable or distinct processing properties? Using the covered picture version of a picture matching task (Huang et al. 2013) with reaction time measures, we look both at cases where the overt picture is rejected and where it is accepted. Our results provide a negative answer to the first question: while delays for implicature responses arise for rejections (Covered picture choices), the pattern flips for acceptances (Target choices). The cross-over interaction in the results is inconsistent with attributing delayed implicature-rejections to delays in the availability of the implicature, since Target choices compatible with the implicature are faster than ones that are only compatible with a literal interpretation. This yields a very different perspective on reaction time results for implicatures. As for the second question, our results show that once acceptance vs. rejection is factored in, the general reaction time pattern is the same for indirect and direct scalar implicatures and compatible with the different results found in the literature.


How to Cite

Schwarz, F., Romoli, J., & Bill, C. (2019). Scalar implicatures processing: slowly accepting the truth (literally). Proceedings of Sinn Und Bedeutung, 19, 573–590.