Academic Appointments

  • Assistant Professor, Linguistics

Program Affiliations

  • Symbolic Systems Program

2020-21 Courses

Stanford Advisees

  • Doctoral Dissertation Reader (AC)
    Eva Portelance
  • Postdoctoral Faculty Sponsor
    Morgan Moyer
  • Doctoral Dissertation Advisor (AC)
    Michael Hahn, Daisy Leigh

All Publications

  • Evaluative adjective sentences: A question-based analysis of projection GLOSSA-A JOURNAL OF GENERAL LINGUISTICS Tonhauser, J., de Marneffe, M., Degen, J. 2020; 5 (1)

    View details for DOI 10.5334/gjgl.701

    View details for Web of Science ID 000565656400001

  • I know what you're probably going to say: Listener adaptation to variable use of uncertainty expressions. Cognition Schuster, S., Degen, J. 2020; 203: 104285


    Pragmatic theories of utterance interpretation share the assumption that listeners reason about alternative utterances that a speaker could have produced, but didn't. For such reasoning to be successful, listeners must have precise expectations about a speaker's production choices. This is at odds with the considerable variability across speakers that exists at all levels of linguistic representation. This tension can be reconciled by listeners adapting to the statistics of individual speakers. While linguistic adaptation is increasingly widely attested, semantic/pragmatic adaptation is underexplored. Moreover, what kind of representations listeners update during semantic/pragmatic adaptation - estimates of the speaker's lexicon, or estimates of the speaker's utterance preferences - remains poorly understood. In this work, we investigate semantic/pragmatic adaptation in the domain of uncertainty expressions like might and probably. In a series of web-based experiments, we find 1) that listeners vary in their expectations about a generic speaker's use of uncertainty expressions; 2) that listeners rapidly update their expectations about the use of uncertainty expressions after brief exposure to a speaker with a specific usage of uncertainty expressions; and 3) that listeners' interpretations of uncertainty expressions change after being exposed to a specific speaker. We present a novel computational model of semantic/pragmatic adaptation based on Bayesian belief updating and show, through a series of model comparisons, that semantic/pragmatic adaptation is best captured by listeners updating their beliefs both about the speaker's lexicon and their utterance preferences. This work has implications for both semantic theories of uncertainty expressions and psycholinguistic theories of adaptation: it highlights the need for dynamic semantic representations and suggests that listeners integrate their general linguistic knowledge with speaker-specific experiences to arrive at more precise interpretations.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104285

    View details for PubMedID 32535344

  • When redundancy is useful: A Bayesian approach to "overinformative" referring expressions. Psychological review Degen, J., Hawkins, R. D., Graf, C., Kreiss, E., Goodman, N. D. 2020


    Referring is one of the most basic and prevalent uses of language. How do speakers choose from the wealth of referring expressions at their disposal? Rational theories of language use have come under attack for decades for not being able to account for the seemingly irrational overinformativeness ubiquitous in referring expressions. Here we present a novel production model of referring expressions within the Rational Speech Act framework that treats speakers as agents that rationally trade off cost and informativeness of utterances. Crucially, we relax the assumption that informativeness is computed with respect to a deterministic Boolean semantics, in favor of a nondeterministic continuous semantics. This innovation allows us to capture a large number of seemingly disparate phenomena within one unified framework: the basic asymmetry in speakers' propensity to overmodify with color rather than size; the increase in overmodification in complex scenes; the increase in overmodification with atypical features; and the increase in specificity in nominal reference as a function of typicality. These findings cast a new light on the production of referring expressions: rather than being wastefully overinformative, reference is usefully redundant. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

    View details for DOI 10.1037/rev0000186

    View details for PubMedID 32237876

  • Linking Hypothesis and Number of Response Options Modulate Inferred Scalar Implicature Rate FRONTIERS IN PSYCHOLOGY Jasbi, M., Waldon, B., Degen, J. 2019; 10
  • Linking Hypothesis and Number of Response Options Modulate Inferred Scalar Implicature Rate. Frontiers in psychology Jasbi, M. n., Waldon, B. n., Degen, J. n. 2019; 10: 189


    The past 15 years have seen increasing experimental investigations of core pragmatic questions in the ever more active and lively field of experimental pragmatics. Within experimental pragmatics, many of the core questions have relied on the operationalization of the theoretical notion of "implicature rate." Implicature rate based results have informed the work on acquisition, online processing, and scalar diversity, inter alia. Implicature rate has typically been quantified as the proportion of "pragmatic" judgments in two-alternative forced choice truth value judgment tasks. Despite its theoretical importance, this linking hypothesis from implicature rate to behavioral responses has never been extensively tested. Here we show that two factors dramatically affect the "implicature rate" inferred from truth value judgment tasks: (a) the number of responses provided to participants; and (b) the linking hypothesis about what constitutes a "pragmatic" judgment. We argue that it is time for the field of experimental pragmatics to engage more seriously with its foundational assumptions about how theoretical notions map onto behaviorally measurable quantities, and present a sketch of an alternative linking hypothesis that derives behavior in truth value judgment tasks from probabilistic utterance expectations.

    View details for PubMedID 30809167

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC6379463

  • On the grammatical source of adjective ordering preferences SEMANTICS & PRAGMATICS Scontras, G., Degen, J., Goodman, N. D. 2019; 12
  • Definitely, maybe: A new experimental paradigm for investigating the pragmatics of evidential devices across languages JOURNAL OF PRAGMATICS Degen, J., Trotzke, A., Scontras, G., Wittenberg, E., Goodman, N. D. 2019; 140: 33–48
  • How Projective is Projective Content? Gradience in Projectivity and At-issueness JOURNAL OF SEMANTICS Tonhauser, J., Beaver, D. I., Degen, J. 2018; 35 (3): 495–542

    View details for DOI 10.1093/jos/ffy007

    View details for Web of Science ID 000456050400004

  • Reasoning in Reference Games: Individual-vs. Population-Level Probabilistic Modeling PLOS ONE Franke, M., Degen, J. 2016; 11 (5)


    Recent advances in probabilistic pragmatics have achieved considerable success in modeling speakers' and listeners' pragmatic reasoning as probabilistic inference. However, these models are usually applied to population-level data, and so implicitly suggest a homogeneous population without individual differences. Here we investigate potential individual differences in Theory-of-Mind related depth of pragmatic reasoning in so-called reference games that require drawing ad hoc Quantity implicatures of varying complexity. We show by Bayesian model comparison that a model that assumes a heterogenous population is a better predictor of our data, especially for comprehension. We discuss the implications for the treatment of individual differences in probabilistic models of language use.

    View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0154854

    View details for Web of Science ID 000375676800071

    View details for PubMedID 27149675

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4858259

  • Talker-specificity and adaptation in quantifier interpretation JOURNAL OF MEMORY AND LANGUAGE Yildirim, I., Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K., Jaeger, T. F. 2016; 87: 128-143
  • Availability of Alternatives and the Processing of Scalar Implicatures: A Visual World Eye-Tracking Study. Cognitive science Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K. 2016; 40 (1): 172-201


    Two visual world experiments investigated the processing of the implicature associated with some using a "gumball paradigm." On each trial, participants saw an image of a gumball machine with an upper chamber with orange and blue gumballs and an empty lower chamber. Gumballs dropped to the lower chamber, creating a contrast between a partitioned set of gumballs of one color and an unpartitioned set of the other. Participants then evaluated spoken statements, such as "You got some of the blue gumballs." Experiment 1 investigated the time course of the pragmatic enrichment from some to not all when the only utterance alternatives available to refer to the different sets were some and all. In Experiment 2, the number terms two, three, four, and five were also included in the set of alternatives. Scalar implicatures were delayed relative to the interpretation of literal statements with all only when number terms were available. The results are interpreted as evidence for a constraint-based account of scalar implicature processing.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cogs.12227

    View details for PubMedID 25807866

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4583320

  • Talker-specificity and adaptation in quantifier interpretation. Journal of memory and language Yildirim, I. n., Degen, J. n., Tanenhaus, M. K., Jaeger, T. F. 2016; 87: 128–43


    Linguistic meaning has long been recognized to be highly context-dependent. Quantifiers like many and some provide a particularly clear example of context-dependence. For example, the interpretation of quantifiers requires listeners to determine the relevant domain and scale. We focus on another type of context-dependence that quantifiers share with other lexical items: talker variability. Different talkers might use quantifiers with different interpretations in mind. We used a web-based crowdsourcing paradigm to study participants' expectations about the use of many and some based on recent exposure. We first established that the mapping of some and many onto quantities (candies in a bowl) is variable both within and between participants. We then examined whether and how listeners' expectations about quantifier use adapts with exposure to talkers who use quantifiers in different ways. The results demonstrate that listeners can adapt to talker-specific biases in both how often and with what intended meaning many and some are used.

    View details for PubMedID 26858511

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4742339

  • Processing Scalar Implicature: A Constraint-Based Approach COGNITIVE SCIENCE Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K. 2015; 39 (4): 667-710


    Three experiments investigated the processing of the implicature associated with some using a "gumball paradigm." On each trial, participants saw an image of a gumball machine with an upper chamber with 13 gumballs and an empty lower chamber. Gumballs then dropped to the lower chamber and participants evaluated statements, such as "You got some of the gumballs." Experiment 1 established that some is less natural for reference to small sets (1, 2, and 3 of the 13 gumballs) and unpartitioned sets (all 13 gumballs) compared to intermediate sets (6-8). Partitive some of was less natural than simple some when used with the unpartitioned set. In Experiment 2, including exact number descriptions lowered naturalness ratings for some with small sets but not for intermediate size sets and the unpartitioned set. In Experiment 3, the naturalness ratings from Experiment 2 predicted response times. The results are interpreted as evidence for a Constraint-Based account of scalar implicature processing and against both two-stage, Literal-First models and pragmatic Default models.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cogs.12171

    View details for Web of Science ID 000353464000001

    View details for PubMedID 25265993

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4379146