Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-cnmwb Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-21T16:57:23.389Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Scalar and ad-hoc pragmatic inferences in children: guess which one is easier

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2020

Francesca FOPPOLO*
Department of Psychology, University of Milan-Bicocca
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Trento
Francesca PANZERI
Department of Psychology, University of Milan-Bicocca
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Trento
Corresponding author: Francesca Foppolo, Department of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Ed. U6 Room 3136 3rd Floor, Piazza dell'Ateneo Nuovo, 1, 20126Milano, Italy; Email:;


Several studies investigated preschoolers’ ability to compute scalar and ad-hoc implicatures, but only one compared children's performance with both kinds of implicature with the same task, a picture selection task. In Experiment 1 (N = 58, age: 4;2-6;0), we first show that the truth value judgment task, traditionally employed to investigate children's pragmatic ability, prompts a rate of pragmatic responses comparable to the picture selection task. In Experiment 2 (N = 141, age: 3;8-9;2) we used the picture selection task to compare scalar and ad-hoc implicatures and linked the ability to derive these implicatures to some cognitive and linguistic measures. We found that four- and five-year-olds children performed better on ad-hoc than on scalar implicatures. Furthermore, we found that morphosyntactic competence was associated with success in both kinds of implicatures, while performance on mental state reasoning was positively associated with success on scalar but not ad-hoc implicatures.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Francesca Foppolo and Greta Mazzaggio are joint first authors of this paper.

Authors’ contribution is as follows: Greta Mazzaggio conceived the experimental question, under the supervision of Luca Surian. Francesca Foppolo and Francesca Panzeri developed the tasks. Greta Mazzaggio recruited the children and supervised the testing. Francesca Foppolo performed the statistical analyses. Francesca Foppolo and Greta Mazzaggio drafted the manuscript which was critically revised by all authors.


Baillargeon, R., Scott, R. M., & He, Z. (2010). False-belief understanding in infants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(3), 110118.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Barner, D., Brooks, N., & Bale, A. (2011). Accessing the unsaid: The role of scalar alternatives in children's pragmatic inference. Cognition, 118, 8796.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Belacchi, C., Scalisi, T. G., Cannoni, E., & Cornoldi, C. (2008). CPM coloured progressive matrices: standardizzazione italiana: manuale. Firenze, Italy: Giunti OS.Google Scholar
Bosco, F. M., Tirassa, M., & Gabbatore, I. (2018). Why pragmatics and Theory of Mind do not (completely) overlap. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1453.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bredart, S. (1984). Children's interpretation of referential ambiguities and pragmatic inference. Journal of Child Language, 11, 665672.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Chemla, E., & Singh, R. (2014a). Remarks on the experimental turn in the study of scalar implicature, Part I. Language and Linguistics Compass, 8(9), 373386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chemla, E., & Singh, R. (2014b). Remarks on the experimental turn in the study of scalar implicature, Part II. Language and Linguistics Compass, 8(9), 387399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chierchia, G. (2013). Logic in grammar: Polarity, free choice, and intervention. OUP Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chierchia, G., Crain, S., Guasti, M. T., Gualmini, A., & Meroni, L. (2001). The acquisition of disjunction: Evidence for a grammatical view of scalar implicatures. In Proceedings from the Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, 25, 157168.Google Scholar
Domaneschi, F., & Bambini, V. (2020). Pragmatic Competence. To appear in Fridland, E. & Pavese, C. (Eds.). Routledge Handbook of Skill and Expertise. Springer.Google Scholar
Foppolo, F., Guasti, M. T., & Chierchia, G. (2012). Scalar implicatures in child language: Give children a chance. Language Learning and Development, 8, 365394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Foppolo, F., & Marelli, M. (2017). No delay for some inferences. Journal of Semantics, 34(4), 659681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Cole, P. & Morgan, J. L. (Eds.). Syntax and semantics: Speech acts (Vol. 3, pp. 41–58). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Guasti, T.M., Chierchia, G., Crain, S., Foppolo, F., Gualmini, A., & Meroni, L. (2005). Why children and adults sometimes (but not always) compute implicatures. Language and Cognitive Processes, 20(5), 667696.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Happé, F. G. (1993). Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory. Cognition, 48(2), 101119.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hochstein, L., Bale, A., & Barner, D. (2018). Scalar implicature in absence of epistemic reasoning? The case of autism spectrum disorder. Language Learning and Development, 14(3), 224240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Horn, L. (1972). On the semantic properties of the logical operators in English. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA.Google Scholar
Horowitz, A. C., Schneider, R. M., & Frank, M. C. (2017). The trouble with quantifiers: Exploring children's deficits in scalar implicature. Child Development, 8(6), e572e593.Google Scholar
Jackson, S., & Jacobs, S. (1982). Ambiguity and implicature in children's discourse comprehension. Journal of Child Language, 9, 209216.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Katsos, N., & Bishop, D. V. (2011). Pragmatic tolerance: Implications for the acquisition of informativeness and implicature. Cognition, 120, 6781.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Liu, M., Wu, L., Wu, W., Li, G., Cai, T., & Liu, J. (2018). The relationships among verbal ability, executive function, and theory of mind in young children with cochlear implants. International Journal of Audiology, 57(12), 881888.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Marini, A., Marotta, L., Bulgheroni, S., & Fabbro, F. (2015). Batteria per la valutazione del linguaggio in bambini dai 4 ai 12 anni. Firenze: Giunti OS.Google Scholar
Marty, P. P., & Chemla, E. (2013). Scalar implicatures: working memory and a comparison with only. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Noveck, I. (2001). When children are more logical than adults: Investigations of scalar implicature. Cognition, 78, 165188.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Peterson, C. C., & Siegal, M. (2000). Insights into theory of mind from deafness and autism. Mind & Language, 15(1), 123145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pouscoulous, N., Noveck, I., Politzer, G., & Bastide, A. (2007). Processing costs and implicature development. Language Acquisition, 14, 347375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schaeken, W., Van Haeren, M., & Bambini, V. (2018). The understanding of scalar implicatures in children with autism spectrum disorder: dichotomized responses to violations of informativeness. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1266.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Skordos, D., & Papafragou, A. (2016). Children's derivation of scalar implicatures: Alternatives and relevance. Cognition, 153, 618.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1986/1995). Relevance: Communication and cognition (2nd ed.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Stiller, A., Goodman, N. D., & Frank, M. C. (2015). Ad hoc implicature in preschool children. Language, Learning and Development, 11(2), 176190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Surian, L., Caldi, S., & Sperber, D. (2007). Attribution of beliefs by 13-month-old infants. Psychological Science, 18(7), 580586.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Surian, L., & Job, R. (1987). Children's use of conversational rules in a referential communication task. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 16, 369–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tieu, L., Romoli, J., Zhou, P., & Crain, S. (2015). Children's knowledge of free choice inferences and scalar implicatures. Journal of Semantics, 130.Google Scholar
Wampers, M., Schrauwen, S., De Hert, M., Gielen, L., & Schaeken, W. (2018). Patients with psychosis struggle with scalar implicatures. Schizophrenia Research, 195, 97102.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Wellman, H. M., & Liu, D. (2004). Scaling of theory-of-mind tasks. Child Development, 75(2), 523541.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Winner, E., Brownell, H., Happé, F., Blum, A., & Pincus, D. (1998). Distinguishing lies from jokes: Theory of mind deficits and discourse interpretation in right hemisphere brain-damaged patients. Brain and Language, 62(1), 89106.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed