Resolving scope ambiguity: Lexicon, pragmatics, information structure

2020. №2, 7-30

Valentina Yu. Apresjan
National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia;
Vinogradov Russian Language Institute, Moscow, Russia;


This paper presents a corpus study of factors involved in disambiguating potentially ambiguous sentences with negation and universal quantifier all in written English, such as I haven’t heard all these details. Ambiguity in such sentences results from potential differences in scope assignment. If negation scopes over the quantifier, we get the interpretation of partial negation: ‘I have heard some of these details’. If negation scopes over the verb, we get the interpretation of total negation: ‘I haven’t heard any of these details’. While there is abundant research on the phenomenon of scope ambiguity and its disambiguation via prosody, syntax and semantics, less is known about the pragmatic mechanisms that allow speakers to infer intended scope readings from the lexical environment in actual texts. In order to study the correlation between the lexical set-up of not + Verb + all sentences, their pragmatically plausible interpretations, their information structure, and their scope readings in actual usage, we analyze about 1500 sentences extracted from EnTenTen15 Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American. Our study demonstrates that diff erent lexical instantiations of this construction are associated with diff erent pragmatic scenarios and, hence, with diff erent information structures and scope readings. The interpretations of partial negation (quantifier negation) and total negation (verb negation) differ with respect to semantics, pragmatics and information structure. Namely, a focused quantifier produces partial negation, while a focused verb produces total negation. Quantifier negation entails literal interpretation of the quantifier all in its direct quantificational meaning (I haven’t talked to [all] my students); verb negation mostly entails emphatic interpretation of all in its meaning of negative emphasis (I don’t [want] to talk to all these idiots). Quantifier negation is considerably more frequent than verb negation due to its pragmatic neutrality. In the absence of verb negation markers, it is the default interpretation of V not all structures. Because of its association with quantifi cation, quantifi er negation frequently occurs in the context of predicates that take a quantifi cational argument as a direct object (to include, to list, to finish), or easily allow quantifiable or multiple objects (to know, to meet requirements, to answer criteria). Such predicates are conducive both to placing the quantifier in the focus and interpreting it in its literal quantificational meaning: He didn’t list [all] the requirements; The candidate doesn’t answer [all] the criteria. Verb negation usually occurs with temporal modifi ers containing all (such as all night) because they are conducive to placing the verb in the focus: I haven’t [slept] all night. Verb negation also occurs with emphatic demonstratives and negatively connoted lexical items because they consolidate the emphatic interpretation of the quantifier all: I don’t [want] to hear all these disgusting details.

For citation:

Apresjan V. Yu. Resolving scope ambiguity: Lexicon, pragmatics, information structure. Voprosy Jazykoznanija, 2020, 2: 7–30.


The publication was prepared within the framework of the Academic Fund Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in 2018–2019 (grant No. 18-01-0007 “Factors in resolving scope ambiguity”) and by the Russian Academic Excellence Project “5-100”. I would also like to thank my anonymous reviewers for their suggestions.