Hitting playfully and kissing angrily: A self-paced reading study on force inferences

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Hitting playfully and kissing angrily: A self-paced reading study on force inferences A lot of work has been done on verb-adverb modification (e.g. Parsons, 1990; Eckardt, 1998;Schäfer, 2013), yet not all meaning aspects arising in this process have been accounted for. One such understudied aspect is a type of force inference. In (1), the assumption is that Nancy hit Oliver with little force. This is confirmed by (2): the sentence sounds odd if playfully and lightly are contrasted, suggesting that their meanings are similar. (1) Nancy hit Oliver playfully on the arm. (2) Nancy hit Oliver playfully, but still rather ?lightly/ok hard, on the arm. (3) Nancy hit Oliver angrily, but still rather ?hard/ok lightly, on the arm. Yet this “force reduction” reading is not due to the lexical semantics of playfully, as this reading can be cancelled, cf. the compatibility with hard in (2). Similarly, for angrily in (3), a “force increase” inference arises. These are not individual occurrences, however, but a systematic pattern, cross-cutting traditional distinctions between several types of adverbs. We tested these inferences in a self-paced reading experiment. Participants were asked to read each sentence word by word, and then rate it on a 4-point Likert scale. The results show a significant reading time delay (p<0.05) on the adverb that cancels the inference and on the second and third word of the spill-over area (increase condition), as well as on the first two words of the spill-over area (decrease condition). These results show that world-knowledge plays a crucial role in the composition of meaning in modification. References Eckardt, Regine. 1998. Adverbs, Events, and Other Things. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag. Parsons, Terence. 1990. Events in the Semantics of English. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Schäfer, Martin. 2013. Positions and Interpretations: German Adverbial Adjectives at the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2016
Event17th Szklarska Poreba Workshop - Szklarska Poreba, Szklarska Poreba, Poland
Duration: 4 Mar 20167 Mar 2016


Conference17th Szklarska Poreba Workshop
CitySzklarska Poreba


  • semantics
  • modification
  • inferences
  • experimental semantics
  • self-paced reading


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