The pragmatics of negation across contexts


Why do some negative sentences sound strange, even when they are both true and grammatical? We explore the pragmatics of negation by examining adults’ explicit felicity judgments of negative sentences in context. In Experiment 1, we found that a pragmatically supportive context elicited higher felicity ratings for negative sentences, and that negative sentences expressing nonexistence were rated higher than negative sentences referring to an alternative object. In Experiment 2, we used a within-subjects design to compare three context types, and found that negative sentences were rated more felicitous in a context where most of the characters possessed the negated object, compared to contexts where the other characters possessed an alternative object or nothing. We discuss the pragmatics of negation in light of these results, arguing that the felicity of negative sentences is influenced by changes in the informativeness of these sentences in different contexts.

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