Generics and Mental Representations

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It is widely agreed that generics tolerate exceptions. It turns out, however, that exceptions are tolerated only so long as they do not violate homogeneity: when the exceptions are not concentrated in a salient 'chunk' of the domain of the generic. The criterion for salience of a chunk is cognitive: it is dependent on the way in which the domain is mentally represented. Findings of psychological experiments about the ways in which different domains are represented, and the factors affecting such representations, account for judgments of generic sentences, facts which cannot be explained by linguistics alone. The reason for the homogeneity requirement itself is, in turn, also dependent on cognitive considerations. Generics express default rules, and psychological findings have shown that, the more homogeneous the domain, the easier it is for subjects to infer rules about it. Thus, cognitive results form a crucial part of a comprehensive account of the meaning of a linguistic expression.
Original languageEnglish GB
Pages (from-to)529-556
Number of pages28
JournalLinguistics and Philosophy
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2004


  • English language (Modern)
  • semantics
  • generic sentence
  • conceptual representation


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