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Abstract Bach & Zaefferer

What exactly is the question-assertion distinction based on? An exploration in experimental speech act theory

Introduction. Several authors (Ginzburg and Sag 2000, Truckenbrodt 2004, Zaefferer 2004, forthcoming) have claimed that the illocutionary distinction between questions and assertions is not based on a difference in illocutionary force but on a difference in denotational content. According to Zaefferer the formal difference between interrogative and declarative sentences reflects a sortal difference in propositional content: Both code dyadic structures involving a situation type alongside with another element, but this second element is (a mental representation of) a situation token with declaratives (which ideally instantiates the given type), whereas it is a bare instantiation frame with interrogatives. This predicts first a bias towards positive reactions to evenly distributed true and false assertions and second a stronger reliance on external information with interrogatives.

Methods. The participants were presented with brief pictures of two objects on a table. The colors of the objects and the side they appeared on varied between trials. After each picture a question or an assertion was presented. The participants had to respond by pressing either a yes or a no button on the computer keyboard. Being either on the right or the left side, these keys were spatially aligned with or opposed to the location of the relevant object on the stimulus display. This spatial relation should give rise to spatial compatibility effects (Simon 1969), which provide a measure of the extent to which participants accessed their mental representation of the previously presented picture.

Results. The percentage of yes responses was higher for assertions than for questions whereas the reverse was the case for no responses. The analysis of the spatial compatibility effects revealed further asymmetries.

Discussion. Even though the sentence type – interrogative or declarative – was completely irrelevant to the task, there were clear processing differences: Declaratives triggered more false positive reactions and interrogatives more spatial compatibility effects. These findings were consistent with our assumptions: Understanding a declarative sentence involves building a mental representation of an instance of the coded situation type, which should reduce the activation of prior visual information and lead to an increase in false positive responses. By contrast, processing an interrogative does not involve such an instance representation, so it should not reduce activation of prior information and should therefore trigger stronger spatial compatibility effects.



Ginzburg, Jonathan and Ivan A. Sag, 2000. Interrogative Investigations: The Form, Meaning and Use of English Interrogatives. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Simon, J. R. 1969. Reaction toward the source of stimulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology 81, 174-176.

Truckenbrodt, Hubert 2004. Zur Strukturbedeutung von Interrogativsätzen. Linguistische Berichte 199, 313-350.

Zaefferer, Dietmar, 2004. Interrogative Mood as Content-Type-Driven Epistemo-Volitional Modality. ESSLLI-Workshop 'Syntax, semantics and pragmatics of questions', Nancy.

Zaefferer, Dietmar, forthcoming. Deskewing the Searlean picture. A new speech act ontology for linguistics. Proceedings of the 32 Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society.