Why children and adults sometimes (but not always) compute implicatures

Maria Teresa Guasti*, Gennaro Chierchia, Stephen Crain, Francesca Foppolo, Andrea Gualmini, Luisa Meroni

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

179 Citations (Scopus)


Noveck (2001) argued that children even as old as 11 do not reliably endorse a scalar interpretation of weak scalar terms (some, might, or) (cf. Braine & Rumain, 1981; Smith, 1980). More recent studies suggest, however, that children's apparent failures may depend on the experimental demands (Papafragou & Musolino, 2003). Although previous studies involved children of different ages as well as different tasks, and are thus not directly comparable, nevertheless a common finding is that children do not seem to derive scalar implicatures to the same extent as adults do. The present article describes a series of experiments that were conducted with Italian speaking subjects (children and adults), focusing mainly on the scalar term some. Our goal was to carefully examine the specific conditions that allow the computation of implicatures by children. In so doing, we demonstrate that children as young as 7 (the youngest age of the children who participated in the Noveck study) are able to compute implicatures in experimental conditions that properly satisfy certain contextual prerequisites for deriving such implicatures. We also present further results that have general consequences for the research methodology employed in this area of study. Our research indicates that certain tasks mask children's understanding of scalar terms, not only including the task used by Noveck, but also tasks that employ certain explicit instructions, such as the training task used by Papafragou & Musolino (2003). Our findings indicate further that, although explicit training apparently improves children's ability to draw implicatures, children nevertheless fail to achieve adult levels of performance for most scalar terms even in such tasks, and that the effects of instruction do not last beyond the training session itself for most children. Another relevant finding of the present study is that some of the manipulations of the experimental context have an effect on all subjects, whereas others produce effects on just a subset of children. Individual differences of this kind may have been concealed in previous research because performance by individual subjects was not reported. Our general conclusions are that even young children (7-year olds) have the prerequisites for deriving scalar implicatures, although these abilities are revealed only when the conversational background is natural.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)667-696
Number of pages30
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2005
Externally publishedYes


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