Erin Tavano, Ph.D.

I am a research scientist / software developer in Natural Language Processing
I live in Carlisle, Mass., about 20 miles from Cambridge.

B.S. Computer Science, Northeastern University, 1998
Ph.D. Linguistics, University of Southern California, 2010

but please email for full resume

Phone: 617-444-9614 (rings cell and home)

Dissertation title: The balance of scalar implicature (PDF)


This dissertation aims to provide new insight into the properties that underlie scalar implicature (SI) processing. Previous experiments have investigated the time course of SI processing and whether or not it is a costly, resource-demanding process, but not what the resources have been specifically used to do, and when. Additionally, word scales used in SI research have been treated as interchangeable variations on a type, without systematic evaluation of that assumption. This dissertation investigates these questions via a computational model and several experiments using highly sensitive methodologies, including eyetracking. It concludes that scalar implicature is a costly, effortful process, though that effort is easily affected by task or other experimental factors. Specifically, processing difficulty appears to arise locally (as the scalar term is encountered) and the effort put towards a scalar inference, where the higher term(s) on the scale are negated. This negation appears to lead to reduced accessibility of the term.

Additionally, it is not clear that the scales must be represented as such in the lexicon, or that they should be treated uniformly regardless of the words that compose them. Rather, this research shows that "typical" scales, the ones most often discussed in SI research, are composed of words that are both strongly and unidirectionally connected in the mental lexicon, in the order of the scale. In comparing many scales, I conclude that entailment is neither necessary nor sufficient in a scale, and scalar implicature may involve any set of related and sufficiently frequent words. This points toward a future unification account of particularized and generalized scalar implicature.

Finally, my findings also have methodological implications for experimental work in scalar implicature. The results suggest that participants‘ responses in typical experimental tasks, such as judging whether a sentence is true or appropriate, can be delayed not only by implicature processing but also (for example) participants‘ evaluation what the experimenter considers to be appropriate.

Last updated April 22, 2014