Study title
The pragmatics of descriptive and metalinguistic negation: experimental data from French
Ref study 13418
Study language English
Contributing institutions
  • Descriptive and metalinguistic negation
  • Elicitation offline experiment
  • Self-paced reading experiment
Geographical space
  • Switzerland
  • Belgium
The phenomenon of descriptive and metalinguistic negation has been debated for a long time from a theoretical perspective. On the one hand, there are defenders of the ambiguist approach to negation, in which the descriptive negation basically serves to deny an utterance’s propositional content, and that this takes place by default (Horn 1985; 1989; Burton-Roberts 1989), while the metalinguistic negation surfaces only when the descriptive negation cannot be applied, and targets the non-truth-conditional contents of the utterance (e.g. implicatures, its register, its morphology or its phonology). Only the former is truth-functional, and the latter is claimed to be non-truth-functional as it does not operate on propositions. On the other hand, there are proponents of the non-ambiguist approach, who maintain that both types of negation are truth-functional since, in the case of metalinguistic negation, the process of pragmatic enrichment guarantees that the full proposition on which negation can operate will be reached (Carston 1996; 2002; Noh 1998; 2000; Moeschler 2010; 2013; 2017). Regarding processing, the ambiguist account predicts that it will take more time to treat metalinguistic negation because it always occurs as the second of two steps; in contrast, the non-ambiguist account makes no such prediction, since the interpretation of negation is contextually driven and the right context will issue the correct interpretation from the start. This paper will be devoted to the presentation of two self-paced reading experiments and of one offline elicitation experiment we carried out on French descriptive and metalinguistic negation. Our findings provide evidence in favor of the non-ambiguist approach.
The results of the two online experiments do not provide evidence in favor of the
ambiguist account of negation, which suggests that hearers interpret negation as DN by default, and then reanalyze it as MN once they have encountered a contradictory piece of information.
Instead, they are compatible with the non-ambiguist account, which argues that hearers
build their interpretation of negation in context, using cues as they become available. The
results of the offline elicitation experiment provide evidence in addition to the results of
the online experiments, in which we did not find evidence supporting the hypothesis of
an additional cognitive load when deriving the MN interpretation. More precisely, participants
successfully identified the reference interpretation (MN in the MN experimental
condition and DN in the DN condition) in more than 90% of the cases for each of them
Methods (description)
We present two online self-paced reading experiments and one offline elicitation
task experiment, in which we investigate one particular type of metalinguistic
negation that involves cancelling the implicature drawn from scalar terms.

Two self-paced reading experiments were carried out, in which reading times of NEG and
COR were assessed: one with a context provided through a picture (Experiment 1); and
the second without context (Experiment 2). The same material (experimental items and
fillers) was used in both Experiment 1 and Experiment 2. The main difference between
these two experiments was the presence or absence of a context.

The aim of the elicitation experiment (Experiment 3) was to verify the comprehension
of negative utterances and their possible interpretations as MN or DN when they are preceded
by a visual context but not followed by a COR segment. In other words, we aimed
to test whether participants can derive the MN interpretation based only on a previous
visual context and without having access to a clarification sentence. Participants in the
three experiments were comparable in terms of age and educational background.
Methods (instruments)
  • Blochowiak, Joanna; Grisot, Cristina. 2018. The pragmatics of descriptive and metalinguistic negation: experimental data from French. Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 3(1):1–23. Online: 10.5334/gjgl.440
Financed by
Study type
Data availability
Source (Updates) Web
Date created 20.06.2019
Date modified 03.07.2019
Start - End date 30.06.2019 - 30.04.2018