The acquaintance inference with 'seem'-reports

Proceedings of the Chicago Linguistics Society 54:451-460 (2019)
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Some assertions give rise to the acquaintance inference: the inference that the speaker is acquainted with some individual. Discussion of the acquaintance inference has previously focused on assertions about aesthetic matters and personal tastes (e.g. 'The cake is tasty'), but it also arises with reports about how things seem (e.g. 'Tom seems like he's cooking'). 'Seem'-reports give rise to puzzling acquaintance behavior, with no analogue in the previously-discussed domains. In particular, these reports call for a distinction between the specific acquaintance inference (that the speaker is acquainted with a specific individual) and the general acquaintance inference (that the speaker is acquainted with something or other of relevance). We frame a novel empirical generalization -- the specific with stage-level generalization -- that systematizes the observed behavior, in terms of the semantics of the embedded 'like'-clause. We present supporting experimental work, and explain why the generalization makes sense given the evidential role of 'seem'-reports. Finally, we discuss the relevance of this result for extant proposals about the semantics of 'seem'-reports. More modestly, it fills a gap in previous theories by identifying which reports get which of two possible interpretations; more radically, it suggests a revision of the kind of explanation that should be given for the acquaintance behavior in question.

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Rachel Etta Rudolph
Auburn University


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