December 2016, Vol. 42, No. 4, Pages 637-660
There Is No Logical Negation Here, But There Are Alternatives: Modeling Conversational Negation with Distributional Semantics
Logical negation is a challenge for distributional semantics, because predicates and their negations tend to occur in very similar contexts, and consequently their distributional vectors are very similar. Indeed, it is not even clear what properties a “negated” distributional vector should possess. However, when linguistic negation is considered in its actual discourse usage, it often performs a role that is quite different from straightforward logical negation. If someone states, in the middle of a conversation, that “This is not a dog,” the negation strongly suggests a restricted set of alternative predicates that might hold true of the object being talked about. In particular, other canids and middle-sized mammals are plausible alternatives, birds are less likely, skyscrapers and other large buildings virtually impossible. Conversational negation acts like a graded similarity function, of the sort that distributional semantics might be good at capturing. In this article, we introduce a large data set of alternative plausibility ratings for conversationally negated nominal predicates, and we show that simple similarity in distributional semantic space provides an excellent fit to subject data. On the one hand, this fills a gap in the literature on conversational negation, proposing distributional semantics as the right tool to make explicit predictions about potential alternatives of negated predicates. On the other hand, the results suggest that negation, when addressed from a broader pragmatic perspective, far from being a nuisance, is an ideal application domain for distributional semantic methods.