A pragmatic treatment of simple sentences

Barber, Alex (2000). A pragmatic treatment of simple sentences. Analysis, 60(268) pp. 300–308.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8284.00246


Semanticists face substitution challenges even outside of contexts commonly recognized as opaque. Jennifer M. Saul has drawn attention to pairs of simple sentences - her term for sentences lacking a that-clause operator - of which the following are typical:

(1) Clark Kent went into the phone booth, and Superman came out.
(1*) Clark Kent went into the phone booth, and Clark Kent came out.

(2) Superman is more successful with women than Clark Kent.
(2*) Superman is more successful with women than Superman.

She challenges us to explain why the upper and lower sentences in each pair differ, or at least appear to differ, in their truth-values and hence truth-conditions.

This appearance of substitution failure is inherently puzzling. Moreover, it is taken by Saul to generate a dilemma for anyone hostile to direct reference accounts of that-clause constructions. Direct reference theorists regard the appearance of substitution failure in that-clause contexts as mere appearance, to be dealt with pragmatically rather than semantically. Critics of such accounts need to say something about simple-sentence cases. If they choose to allow that intuitions of substitution failure can be over-ridden and explained away pragmatically in simple-sentence cases but not in that-clause cases, they lay themselves open to the charge of operating a double standard. But if they do not choose this option, they must offer a semantic explanation of apparent substitution failure in simple-sentence cases - no easy task, it turns out.

Other respondents to Saul's challenge have sought to provide elaborate semantic treatments. In contrast, this paper proposes a far simpler pragmatic explanation of intuitions of substitution failure in simple sentences, an explanation that deploys no more resources than are to be found in Grice's 'Logic and Conversation'. Ironically, this proposal turns out to be incompatible with a direct reference perspective. So if it is, as I maintain, the most plausible treatment of simple-sentence cases available, Saul's initial thought gets turned around 180 degrees: the phenomenon she has drawn attention to ends up representing a challenge to supporters of direct reference theories.

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