Torabi Asr, Fatemeh; Demberg, Vera

Interpretation of Discourse Connectives Is Probabilistic: Evidence From the Study of But and Although

Discourse Processes, 57, pp. 376-399, 2020.

Connectives can facilitate the processing of discourse relations by helping comprehenders to infer the intended coherence relation holding between two text spans. Previous experimental studies have focused on pairs of connectives that are very different from one another to be able to compare and formalize the distinguishing effects of these particles in discourse comprehension. In this article, we compare two connectives, but and although, which overlap in terms of the relations they can signal. We demonstrate in a set of carefully controlled studies that while a connective can be a marker of several discourse relations, it can have a specific fine-grained biasing effect on linguistic inferences and that this bias can be derived (or predicted) from the connectives’ distribution of relations found in production data. The effects that we find speak to the ambiguity of discourse connectives, in general, and the different functions of but and although, in particular. These effects cannot be explained within the earlier accounts of discourse connectives, which propose that each connective has a core meaning or processing instruction. Instead, we here lay out a probabilistic account of connective meaning and interpretation, which is based on the distribution of connectives in production and is supported by our experimental findings.