Tourtouri, Elli; Delogu, Francesca; Sikos, Les; Crocker, Matthew W.

Rational over-specification in visually-situated comprehension and production

Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science, 3, pp. 175-202, 2019.

Contrary to the Gricean maxims of quantity (Grice, in: Cole, Morgan (eds) Syntax and semantics: speech acts, vol III, pp 41-58, Academic Press, New York, 1975), it has been repeatedly shown that speakers often include redundant information in their utterances (over-specifications). Previous research on referential communication has long debated whether this redundancy is the result of speaker-internal or addressee-oriented processes, while it is also unclear whether referential redundancy hinders or facilitates comprehension.

We present an information-theoretic explanation for the use of over-specification in visually-situated communication, which quantifies the amount of uncertainty regarding the referent as entropy (Shannon in Bell Syst Tech J 5:10,, 1948). Examining both the comprehension and production of over-specifications, we present evidence that (a) listeners’ processing is facilitated by the use of redundancy as well as by a greater reduction of uncertainty early on in the utterance, and (b) that at least for some speakers, listeners’ processing concerns influence their encoding of over-specifications: Speakers were more likely to use redundant adjectives when these adjectives reduced entropy to a higher degree than adjectives necessary for target identification.