Meaning and Context in Children's Understanding of Gradable Adjectives

Kristen Syrett, Christopher Kennedy, Jeffrey Lidz

This paper explores what children and adults know about three specific ways that meaning and context interact: the interpretation of expressions whose extensions vary in different contexts (semantic context dependence); conditions on the felicitous use of expressions in a discourse context (presupposition accommodation) and informative uses of expressions in contexts in which they strictly speaking do not apply (imprecision). The empirical focus is the use of unmodified (positive form) gradable adjectives (GAs) in definite descriptions to distinguish between two objects that differ in the degree to which they possess the property named by the adjective. We show that by 3 years of age, children are sensitive to all three varieties of context-meaning interaction and that their knowledge of this relation with the definite description is appropriately guided by the semantic representations of the GA appearing in it. These findings suggest that children's semantic representations of the GAs we investigated and the definite determiner the are adult-like and that they are aware of the consequences of these representations when relating meaning and context. Bolstered by adult participant responses, this work provides important experimental support for theoretical claims regarding the semantics of gradable predicates and the nature of different types of 'interpretive variability', specifically semantic context dependence v. pragmatic tolerance of imprecision.