Presupposition and accommodation

Jacopo Romoli

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A basic discovery of research in semantics, pragmatics and their interface is that the meaning of an utterance is not always a single, unified whole, but can be divided into different components of meaning. This chapter addresses one such division: the division between presupposed and asserted content. Whether this division aligns with that of semantics and pragmatics is a matter of controversy, with some theories pulling presuppositions more towards the semantic side while others considering them more as part of the pragmatic realm.1 All theories of presuppositions, however, involve some combination of semantic and pragmatic elements in their account, making the presupposed/asserted content distinction of of the most emblematic phenomenonofthesemantic/pragmaticinterface. Thedividebetweenpresupposed and asserted aspects of meaning, originally observed by the German philosopher Gottlob Frege (Frege 1892), plays a role for the interpretation of an utterance in two ways. First, presupposed and asserted content can interact differently with other utterances in a discourse. Second, the presupposed and asserted content of parts of a complex utterance can also interact differently with other parts in the compositional build-up of utterance meaning. The division between these two types of content is, however, not as rigid as we would expect. In particular, in some cases, it is possible for presupposed content to acquire properties of asserted content. For these cases, an ‘Accommodation’ operation has been hypothesized and this is the second topic of this chapter. Evidence for Accommmodation as well as for the division between presupposed and asserted content comes both from the discourse properties of complete utterances, and the compositional interpretation of complex utterances. In the remainder of this section, we introduce data from the discourse level. In the second section, we turn to evidence from complex utterances, and at the same time introduce the framework of Dynamic Semantics which arguably represents the most influential account of these data. In the final section, we discuss some important challenges to the Dynamic Semantics framework. As these later development show, the research on presuppositions and accommodation remains one of the most debated topic in the semantics/pragmatics literature. Moreover, recently presuppositions have been investigated more and more with psycholinguistic methods, also in comparison to other semantic/pragmatic inferences like scalar implicatures. This experimental work has brought new important data in the theoretical debate and contributed even more to make this an exciting time to study these phenomena.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhandbook of pragmatics
ISBN (Print)9780415531412
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2 Sept 2015


  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • presuppositions


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