Kravtchenko, Ekaterina; Demberg, Vera

Informationally redundant utterances elicit pragmatic inferences

Cognition, 225, pp. 105159, 2022, ISSN 0010-0277.

Most theories of pragmatics and language processing predict that speakers avoid excessive informational redundancy. Informationally redundant utterances are, however, quite common in natural dialogue. From a comprehension standpoint, it remains unclear how comprehenders interpret these utterances, and whether they make attempts to reconcile the ‚dips‘ in informational utility with expectations of ‚appropriate‘ or ‚rational‘ speaker informativity. We show that informationally redundant (overinformative) utterances can trigger pragmatic inferences that increase utterance utility in line with comprehender expectations. In a series of three studies, we look at utterances which refer to stereotyped event sequences describing common activities (scripts). When comprehenders encounter utterances describing events that can be easily inferred from prior context, they interpret them as signifying that the event conveys new, unstated information (i.e. an event otherwise assumed to be habitual, such as paying the cashier when shopping, is reinterpreted as non-habitual). We call these inferences atypicality inferences. Further, we show that the degree to which these atypicality inferences are triggered depends on the framing of the utterance. In the absence of an exclamation mark or a discourse marker indicating the speaker’s specific intent to communicate the given information, such inferences are far less likely to arise. Overall, the results demonstrate that excessive conceptual redundancy leads to comprehenders revising the conversational common ground, in an effort to accommodate unexpected dips in informational utility.