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Precision and speaker qualities. The social meaning of pragmatic detail

  • Andrea Beltrama ORCID logo EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard

Abstract

The present article focuses on two questions: (i) How do listeners infer the social identity of a speaker based on how they choose to describe the world? (ii) Are these inferences informed by similar principles to those motivating the social significance of linguistic phenomena in other domains of the grammar? We address this issue by exploring the social meaning of imprecision (Lasersohn 1999): speakers’ well-attested tendency to apply varying degrees of deviation from the truth when reporting facts (e.g., describing a car as going 70 MPH, instead of 69). Based on results from a social perception study, we found (i) that a high degree of precision is associated with a constellation of both favorable and unfavorable qualities; (ii) that different linguistic cues to signal precision differentially affect the social meaning of the utterance; (iii) and that most such qualities bear a striking resemblance to those associated to variation in other realms – e.g., the hyper/hypo-articulation of sounds. We take this as evidence that semantic variation can be socially meaningful across the specific lexical items in which it manifests itself, and that such social meanings can be linguistically motivated by similar principles across different domains of the grammar.

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Appendix A: Experimental stimuli

Experimental items:

    1. Person A: At what time did John call you? Person B: He called at 9.03.

    2. Person A: At what time did John call you? Person B: He called at 9.

    3. Person A: John called at 9. Person B: No, actually he called at 9.03.

    4. Person A: John called at 3. Person B: No, actually he called at 9.

    1. Person A: How far is the closest gas station from here? Person B: It’s 11.9 miles down the highway.

    2. Person A: How far is the closest gas station from here? Person B: It’s 10 miles down the highway.

    3. Person A: The next gas station is 12 miles down the highway. Person B: No, actually it’s 11.9 miles down the highway.

    4. Person A: The next gas station is 30 miles down the highway. Person B: No, actually it’s 10 miles down the highway.

    1. Person A: How long does it take to walk from your house to the closest ice-cream shop? Person B: It takes 9 min and 30 s to get there.

    2. Person A: How long does it take to walk from your house to the closest ice-cream shop? Person B: It takes 10 min to get there.

    3. Person A: The closest ice-cream shop is 10 min away. Person B: No, actually it takes 9 min and 30 s to get there.

    4. Person A: The closest ice-cream shop is 40 min away. Person B: No, actually it takes 10 min to get there.

    1. Person A: What time did they deliver the package? Person B: They delivered it at 8.02 am.

    2. Person A: What time did they deliver the package? Person B: They delivered it at 8 am.

    3. Person A: They delivered the package at 8 am. Person B: No, actually they delivered it at 8.02.

    4. Person A: They delivered the package at noon. Person B: No, actually they delivered it at 8 am.

    1. Person A: How many people live in this town? Person B: The population is 14,932.

    2. Person A: How many people live in this town? Person B: The population is 15 thousand.

    3. Person A: This town has a population of 15 thousand. Person B: No, actually the population is 14,932.

    4. Person A: This town has a population of 25 thousand. Person B: No, actually the population is 15 thousand.

    1. Person A: How far are we from the next town? Person B: It’s 6.9 miles from here.

    2. Person A: How far are we from the next town? Person B: It’s 7 miles from here.

    3. Person A: The next town is 7 miles from here. Person B: No, actually it’s 6.9 miles from here.

    4. Person A: The next town is 25 miles from here. Person B: No, actually it’s 7 miles from here.

    1. Person A: What time did Mary get home last night? Person B: She came home at 10.33 pm.

    2. Person A: What time did Mary get home last night? Person B: She came home at 10.30 pm.

    3. Person A: Yesterday Mary got home at 10.30 pm. Person B: No, actually she came home at 10.33 pm.

    4. Person A: Yesterday Mary got home after midnight last night. Person B: No, actually she came home at 10.30 pm.

    1. Person A: How long was the trip to get here? Person B: It was 3 h and 58 min.

    2. Person A: How long was the trip to get here? Person B: It was 4 h.

    3. Person A: The trip to get here was 4 h. Person B: No, actually it was 3 h and 58 min.

    4. Person A: The trip to get here was 6 h. Person B: No, actually it was 4 h.

    1. Person A: How far from home were we when you when the car broke down? Person B: We were 19.8 miles away.

    2. Person A: How far from home were we when you when the car broke down? Person B: We were 20 miles away.

    3. Person A: We were 20 miles away from home when the car broke down. Person B: No, actually we were 19.8 miles away.

    4. Person A: We were 40 miles away from home when the car broke down. Person B: No, actually we were 20 miles away.

    1. Person A: When did your parents arrive in town? Person B: They got here at 9.04.

    2. Person A: When did your parents arrive in town? Person B: They got here at 9.

    3. Person A: My parents got to our place at 9. Person B: No, actually they got here at 9.04.

    4. Person A: My parents got to our place at 5. Person B: No, actually they got here at 9.

    1. Person A: How long did it take to get home from the game? Person B: It took us 22 min and 20 s.

    2. Person A: How long did it take to get home from the game? Person B: It took us 20 min.

    3. Person A: It took us 20 min to get home from the game. Person B: No, actually it took us 22 min and 20 s.

    4. Person A: It took us 40 min to get home from the game. Person B: No, actually it took us 20 min.

    1. Person A: When did you go for lunch? Person B: We went at 12.01.

    2. Person A: When did you go for lunch? Person B: We went at 12.

    3. Person A: We went for lunch at noon yesterday. Person B: No, actually we went at 12.01.

    4. Person A: We went for lunch at 3 yesterday. Person B: No, actually we went at 12.

    1. Person A: What quantity of mushroom did John bring in? Person B: He brought 1.95 pounds.

    2. Person A: What quantity of mushroom did John bring in? Person B: He brought 2 pounds.

    3. Person A: John brought in 2 pounds of fresh mushrooms today. Person B: No, actually he brought 1.95 pounds.

    4. Person A: John brought in 4 pounds of fresh mushrooms today. Person B: No, actually he brought 2 pounds.

    1. Person A: How long did it take you to find a parking spot? Person B: It took us 9 min and 40 s.

    2. Person A: How long did it take you to find a parking spot? Person B: It took us 10 min.

    3. Person A: It took us 10 min to find a parking spot. Person B: No, actually it took us 9 min and 40 s.

    4. Person A: It took us 30 min to find a parking spot. Person B: No, actually it took us 10 min.

    1. Person A: When did the show begin? Person B: It began at 8:31.

    2. Person A: When did the show begin? Person B: It began at 8:30.

    3. Person A: The show began at 8:30. Person B: No, actually it began at 8:31.

    4. Person A: The show began at 10:30. Person B: No, actually it began at 8:30.

    1. Person A: How old is the building in front of the town hall? Person B: It’s 39 years, 8 months and 20 days old.

    2. Person A: How old is the building in front of the town hall? Person B: It’s 40 years old.

    3. Person A: The building in front of the town hall is 40 years old. Person B: No, actually it’s 39 years, 8 months and 20 days old.

    4. Person A: The building in front of the town hall is 70 years old. Person B: No, actually it’s 40 years old.

Fillers:

  1. Person A: Dana is getting married!

    Person B: Oh, I didn’t know. That’s great!

  2. Person A: Where can I take the train that goes to the airport?

    Person B: You can take it from the main station.

  3. Person A: John was born in 1987.

    Person B: Oh, I thought he was much younger.

  4. Person A: Where is Michael’s graduation party?

    Person B: He’s hosting it in his apartment.

  5. Person A: Who decided to shut down the movie theater in town?

    Person B: I think it was the mayor.

  6. Person A: Jessica is pregnant!

    Person B: Oh, very good news!

  7. Person A: Is it true that that Claudia and Steph are together?

    Person B: I think they are just dating casually!

  8. Person A: Where is the closest ATM?

    Person B: It’s just around the corner.

Appendix B: Statistical summary

Table 4:

Average scores and standard deviation for all attributes.

R-1stS-1stR-CS-C
AttributeAvgSDAvgSDAvgSDAvgSD
Articulate3.860.964.55O.974.480.894.531.02
H. Working3.930.814.230.884.250.814.031.06
Intelligent4.010.844.600.874.460.734.341.11
Educated3.970.854.450.904.380.884.400.99
Avg. Pos.3.950.734.530.754.440.704.420.90
Uptight1.891.064.031.623.191.545.021.24
Pedantic2.101.263.881.653.261.414.661.52
Annoying1.921.163.541.623.001.494.851.16
Obsessive2.001.034.391.633.171.584.001.28
Avg. Neg.1.980.943.961.433.160.934.881.33
Table 5:

Correlation matrix for all attributes.

ArtIntEduHWPosUptPedAnnObsNeg
Art1.000.630.690.560.860.220.180.050.200.19
Int0.631.000.670.610.860.120.110.000.180.12
Edu0.690.671.000.570.860.200.150.030.150.15
HW0.560.610.571.000.800.110.14−0.010.100.09
Pos0.860.860.860.801.000.190.170.020.190.16
Upt0.220.120.200.110.191.000.750.800.790.93
Ped0.180.110.150.140.170.751.000.680.690.87
Ann0.050.000.03−0.010.020.800.681.000.720.89
Obs0.200.180.150.100.190.790.690.721.000.89
Neg0.190.120.150.090.160.930.870.890.891.00
Table 6:

1st vs. 2nd half mixed-effect model summary for Positive attributes.

FactorArticulateH.WorkIntelligentEducatedAverage
Coeff.pCoeff.pCoeff.pCoeff.pCoeff.p
Intercept3.86<0.0013.92<0.00014.01<0.0013.97<0.0013.94<0.001
Sharp0.69<0.0010.30<0.050.59<0.0010.48<0.0010.54<0.001
Corrective0.62<0.0010.32<0.010.044<0.0010.41<0.0010.45<0.001
2Half0.040.7100.040.8230.030.8090.090.5430.020.877
2Half:Sharp0.030.8410.060.6870.190.2380.070.6560.310.754
2Half:Corr.0.000.9640.020.8930.030.8400.100.4900.040.971
2H:Sh:Co.0.100.6710.030.8930.300.1880.100.6320.100.917
  1. Effect of Half and related interactions in boldface.

Table 7:

1st vs. 2nd half mixed-effect model summary for Negative attributes.

FactorObsessivePedanticUptightAnnoyingAverage
Coeff.pCoeff.pCoeff.pCoeff.pCoeff.p
Intercept2.00<0.0012.10<0.0011.89<0.011.91<0.0011.98<0.001
Sharp2.39<0.0011.77<0.0012.13<0.011.64<0.0011.98<0.001
Corrective1.17<0.0011.11<0.0011.30<0.051.08<0.0011.17<0.001
2Half0.100.6190.020.9020.030.8750.030.8570.040.767
2Half:Sharp0.170.4850.110.6280.210.3640.060.7910.140.452
2Half:Corr.0.380.1290.160.6260.330.1630.150.5080.330.078
2H:Sh:Co.0.180.6040.160.6260.080.8090.030.9270.090.730
  1. Effect of Half and related interactions in boldface.

Table 8:

Comparison between conditions for Negative attributes: 1st Half vs. 2nd Half.

ContrastArticulateH.WorkIntelligentEducatedAverage
t.ratiopt.ratiopt.ratiopt.ratio.pt.ratiop
Sh,1st men1.490.7980.371.002.040.450.121.000.440.99
Sh, Corr.0.261.000.990.970.161.000.011.000.141.00
Rd, 1st men0.241.000.091.000.620.990.221.000.161.00
Rd, Corr.0.451.000.430.990.081.000.111.000.291.00
Table 9:

Comparison between conditions for Negative attributes: 1st Half vs. 2nd Half.

ContrastObsessivePedanticUptightAnnoyingAverage
t.ratiopt.ratiopt.ratiopt.ratio.pt.ratiop
Sh,1st men1.310.880.740.991.100.940.540.991.160.93
Sh, Corr.1.220.901.050.960.011.000.540.990.301.00
Rd, 1st men0.500.990.121.000.161.000.191.000.301.00
Rd, Corr.0.391.002.550.201.200.880.720.991.700.66
Received: 2018-02-22
Accepted: 2018-08-15
Published Online: 2018-12-19

©2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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