When children are more pragmatic than adults: The development of understanding imprecision

Camilo Rodriguez Ronderos, Postdoctoral fellow at IFIKK, presents findings from an experiment comparing children and adult's imprecise interpretations of adjectives.

Absolute adjectives like straight can have both a precise (“literal”) (perfectly straight) and an imprecise (“non-literal”) (straight enough) interpretation. Their precise interpretation is generally believed to be part of the adjective’s semantic meaning (Kennedy, 2007; Syrett et al., 2010; Aparicio et al., 2015; i.a.). The imprecise interpretation is seen as a pragmatic phenomenon that arises after setting a contextual threshold for tolerance (see Lasersohn, 1999; Leffel et al., 2016).  How and when do we learn to set this threshold in order to decide whether people are speaking precisely or imprecisely?

It could be the case that as a form of pragmatic reasoning, imprecise interpretations develop over time, with young children first showing a preference for literal interpretations, similarly to what has been found for other pragmatic phenomena such as scalar implicatures and irony (e.g., Noveck, 2001). Alternatively, it could be that children show the opposite trajectory: If they have not yet learnt to set a threshold for precision, they might show higher tolerance for imprecise usages of absolute adjectives at a young age. 

The current study tests these two hypotheses using a picture selection paradigm based on the study by Syrett et al. (2010). In a pre-registered experiment, we tested 100 native speakers of Norwegian ages 3-8 along with 33 adults. Our findings suggest that children behave more pragmatically than adults when understanding imprecision, and that only with age do they become less tolerant of imprecise interpretations of absolute adjectives.

Published July 8, 2022 12:34 PM - Last modified Sep. 26, 2022 9:48 AM