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Children's interpretation of conjunction in the scope of negation in English and Mandarin: New evidence for the semantic subset maxim



We tested 3- to 5-year-old English- and Mandarin-speaking children on their interpretation of sentences like The elephant didn't eat both the carrot and the capsicum. These sentences are scopally ambiguous. Adult English speakers favor a weak interpretation of such sentences, with negation taking scope over conjunction (i.e., the elephant probably ate one of the vegetables, but not both). In contrast, adult Mandarin speakers favor a strong interpretation of the corresponding Mandarin sentences, with conjunction taking scope over negation (i.e., the elephant ate neither vegetable). The semantic subset maxim (Notley, Zhou, Jensen, & Crain, 2012) predicts that children acquiring all human languages should initially prefer the strong (subset) reading of such sentences. In contrast, the question–answer requirement model (Gualmini, Hulsey, Hacquard, & Fox, 2008; Hulsey, Hacquard, Fox, & Gualmini, 2004) predicts that children should initially prefer the scope reading that constitutes a good true answer to a question under discussion in the context. We designed a task in which the weak reading of our sentences corresponded to a good true answer to the question under discussion. We found that children across languages nonetheless preferred to assign a strong interpretation to our test sentences, providing empirical support for the semantic subset maxim.


Corresponding author

ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Anna Myra Notley, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and Disorders, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW 2109, Australia. E-mail:


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