Conceptual distinctions amongst generics

Sandeep Prasada, Sangeet Khemlani, Sarah Jane Leslie, Sam Glucksberg

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63 Scopus citations


Generic sentences (e.g., bare plural sentences such as "dogs have four legs" and "mosquitoes carry malaria") are used to talk about kinds of things. Three experiments investigated the conceptual foundations of generics as well as claims within the formal semantic approaches to generics concerning the roles of prevalence, cue validity and normalcy in licensing generics. Two classes of generic sentences that pose challenges to both the conceptually based and formal semantic approaches to generics were investigated. Striking property generics (e.g. "sharks bite swimmers") are true even though only a tiny minority of instances have the property and thus pose obvious problems for quantificational approaches, and they also do not seem to characterize kinds in terms of the principled or statistical connections investigated in previous research (Prasada & Dillingham, 2006, 2009). The second class - minority characteristic generics (e.g. "ducks lay eggs") - also poses serious problems for quantificational accounts, and appears to involve principled connections even though fewer than half of its instances have the relevant property. The experiments revealed three principal discoveries: first, striking generics involve neither principled nor statistical connections. Instead, they involve a causal connection between a kind and a property. Second, minority characteristic generics exhibit the characteristics of principled connections, which suggests that principled connections license the expectation that most instances will have the property, but do not require it. Finally, the experiments also provided evidence that prevalence and the acceptability of generics may be dissociated and provided data that are problematic for normalcy approaches to generics, and for the idea that cue validity licenses low prevalence generics. As such, the studies provided evidence in favor of a conceptually based approach to the semantics of generics (Leslie, 2007, 2008; see also Carlson, 2009).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-422
Number of pages18
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Concepts
  • Generalizations
  • Generics
  • Semantics


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