Expectation biases and context management with negative polar questions

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This paper examines distinctive discourse properties of preposed negative yes/no questions (NPQs), such as Isn’t Jane coming too?. Unlike with other yes/no questions, using an NPQ ∼ p? invariably conveys a bias toward a particular answer, where the polarity of the bias is opposite of the polarity of the question: using the negative question ∼ p? invariably expresses that the speaker previously expected the positive answer p to be correct. A prominent approach— what I call the context-management approach, developed most extensively by Romero and Han (Linguistics and Philosophy, 27, 609-658 2004)— attempts to capture speaker expectation biases by treating NPQs fundamentally as epistemic questions about the proper discourse status of a proposition. I raise challenges for existing context-managing accounts to provide more adequate formalizations of the posited context-managing content, its implementation in the compositional semantics and discourse dynamics, and its role in generating the observed biases. New data regarding discourse differences between NPQs and associated epistemic modal questions are introduced. I argue that we can capture the roles of NPQs in expressing speakers’ states of mind and managing the discourse common ground without positing special context-managing operators or treating NPQs as questions directly about the context. I suggest that we treat the operator introduced with preposed negation as having an ordinary semantics of epistemic necessity, though lexically associated with a general kind of endorsing use observed with modal expressions. The expressive and context-managing roles of NPQs are explained in terms of a general kind of discourse-oriented use of context-sensitive language. The distinctive expectation biases and discourse properties observed with NPQs are derived from the proposed semantics and a general principle of Discourse Relevance.

Bibliographic note

Silk, A. J Philos Logic (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10992-019-09512-0


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-42
Number of pages42
JournalJournal of Philosophical Logic
Early online date7 May 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 May 2019


  • Biased questions, Context-managing operators, Context-sensitivity, Epistemic modals, Expressives, Negative polar questions, Questions, Subjective use

ASJC Scopus subject areas