Alternative questions Distinguishing between negated and complementary disjuncts

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Andrea Beltrama
Erlinde Meertens
Maribel Romero


Polar Questions such as “is the light on?” (henceforth, PQs) and Negative Alternative Question such as “is the light on or not?” (henceforth, NAQ), despite being seemingly semantically equivalent, are known to differ pragmatically (Bolinger, 1978, van Rooy and Šafářová 2003, Biezma 2009). This paper explores the difference between these two question types and Complement Alternative Questions (henceforth, CAQ), a type of question that mentions two mutually exclusive propositions but makes no use of negation (e.g., “is the light on or off?”). Based on experimental evidence, we show that CAQs feature a different pragmatic profile from the other two question types. First, while PQs and NAQs are homogeneously felicitous or infelicitous as invitations, rhetorical questions or inference-corroborating questions, CAQs do not behave uniformly in such contexts. Second, while NAQs are confirmed to be infelicitous discourse-initially, neither NAQs nor CAQs are not necessarily limited to a discourse-final position. We take these findings to suggest that all accounts proposed cannot fully capture the full paradigm of these questions types and highlight several areas of future research to revise them.

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Andrea Beltrama, University of Pennsylvania

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