LIRa Session: Kees van Deemter

Speaker: Kees van Deemter (Utrecht University and University of Aberdeen)

Date and Time: Thursday, April 25th 2019, 16:30-18:00

Venue: ILLC Seminar Room F1.15, Science Park 107.

Title: The Elusive Benefits of Vagueness.

Abstract. Much of everyday language is vague, yet the benefits of vagueness for hearers and readers are proving to be elusive. We discuss a range of earlier controlled experiments with human participants, and we report on a new series of experiments that we conducted in recent years. These new experiments, which focus on strategic use of vague expressions that are part of referential noun phrases, aim to separate the utility of vagueness (defined by the existence of borderline cases, as is common in theoretical work) from other factors that tend to co-occur with vagueness. Having presented the evidence, we argue that the evidence supports a view of vagueness where the benefits of vague terms are due to other influences, rather than to vagueness itself. These factors include: low granularity; the use of evaluative words; the avoidance of overtly numerical words; the existence of comparison strategies; and, lastly and more tentatively, a phenomenon that we call range reduction. Although it is possible that other types of vague expressions (i.e., outside referential noun phrases) behave differently, our work suggests that vagueness itself may not increase the utility of an expression at all.

This is joint work with Matthew Green (Bournemouth University).