Why use or?

Mira Ariel, Caterina Mauri

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Or constructions introduce a set of alternatives into the discourse. But alternativity does not exhaust speakers' intended messages. Speakers use the profiled or alternatives as a starting point for expressing a variety of readings. Ever since (Grice, H. Paul. 1989. Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) and (Horn. 1972. On the semantic properties of the logical operators in English. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Los Angeles dissertation), the standard approach has assumed that or has an inclusive lexical meaning and a predominantly exclusive use, thus focusing on two readings. While another, "free choice", reading has been added to the repertoire, accounting for the exclusive reading remains a goal all or theorists must meet. We here propose that both "inclusive" and "exclusive" interpretations, as currently defined, do not capture speakers' intended readings, which we equate with the relevance-theoretic explicature. Adopting a usage-based approach to language, we examined all the or occurrences in the Santa Barbara Corpus of spoken American English (1053 tokens), and found that speakers use or utterances for a far richer variety of readings than has been recognized. In line with Cognitive Linguistics, we propose that speakers' communicated intentions are better analyzed in terms of subjective construals, rather than the objective conditions obtaining when the or proposition is true. We argue that in two of these readings speakers are not necessarily committed to even one of the alternatives being the case. In the most frequent reading, the overt disjuncts only serve as pointers to a higher-level concept, and it is that concept that the speaker intends to refer to.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)939-993
Number of pages55
Issue number5
StatePublished - 28 Aug 2018


  • disjunction
  • exclusive
  • explicature
  • higher-level category
  • implicature
  • inclusive
  • truth-compatible inference


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