[PS-3.36] Generalizations from definite and indefinite generics are asymmetric

Fuellenbach, K. K. & Husband, E. M.

Oxford University

We investigate the relationship between language and the human conceptual system by exploring how the grammatical form of the subject of a generic sentence influences expectations of the type of conceptual connection it establishes with its properties. We trained participants on novel properties in pseudoword sentences with three subject types: Bare plurals (BPs), which generalize over both statistical and principled connections, and indefinite and definite singulars (IS, DS), which only support principled connections. We then tested the comprehension of these novel properties, asking how participants judged the conceptual connection between one trained property and a new object. We discovered an asymmetry based on subject type: compared to BPs, IS subjects increase generalizations of principled connections whereas DS subjects diminish generalizations of statistical connections. This supports the theoretical claim that IS subjects refer to maximal object entity groups while DSs refer directly to kinds. This ability to infer the conceptual status of properties based solely on morphosyntactic cues implies a tighter connection between grammar and concepts than is classically assumed and suggests that we can come to know about our world through subtle distinctions in generic usage.