Thursday, June 01, 2006

Answering questions and pragmatics

Some people think that what constitutes the answer to a question is an entirely semantic matter. I think Sag, Ginzburg, Gronendijk, and Stokhof all hold this view. For them, answerhood seems to be a function of the semantic content of the question.. But, there are thtings this seems to leave out. What constitutes an answer, at least in part, depends on what the information the asker has is. If I know that the height of an average community member is 5' tall and I ask if community member C is tall, then your answer of 'C is 6' tall' will be an answer. Semantically though, my question and your response are independent. Another problem with a purely semantic account is that it leaves out the possibility of non-verbal answers. For example, a silence after a doctor asking "Did he make it?" regarding a patient is an answer. A shrug is also an answer. In the case of a shrug or a shake of the head, one might say that the agent indicated a propositional content. I don't think this is a good route to take, but in the case of a silence, it doesn't seem tenable at all. My conclusoins: pragmatics are very involved in questions and answerhood.

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