Processing and domain selection: Quantificational variability effects


Three studies investigated how readers interpret sentences with variable quantificational domains, for example, The army was mostly in the capital, where mostly may quantify over individuals or parts (Most of the army was in the capital) or over times (The army was in the capital most of the time). It is proposed that a general conceptual economy principle, No Extra Times, discourages the postulation of potentially unnecessary times, and thus favours the interpretation quantifying over parts. Disambiguating an ambiguously quantified sentence to a quantification over times interpretation was rated as less natural than disambiguating it to a quantification over parts interpretation (Experiment 1). In an interpretation questionnaire, sentences with similar quantificational variability were constructed so that both interpretations of the sentence would require postulating multiple times; this resulted in the elimination of the preference for a quantification over parts interpretation, suggesting the parts preference observed in Experiment 1 is not reducible to a lexical bias of the adverb mostly (Experiment 2). An eye movement recording study showed that, in the absence of prior evidence for multiple times, readers exhibit greater difficulty when reading material that forces a quantification over times interpretation than when reading material that allows a quantification over parts interpretation (Experiment 3). These experiments contribute to understanding readers’ default assumptions about the temporal properties of sentences, which is essential for understanding the selection of a domain for adverbial quantifiers and, more generally, for understanding how situational constraints influence sentence processing.

Language and Cognitive Processes, 28, 1519-1544