DOI: 10.1016/j.pragma.2021.11.005">

“How's the wife?”: Pragmatic reasoning in spousal reference

Document Type


Publication Date



English Language and Literature

Publication Title

Journal of Pragmatics


In the vein of recent research at the intersection of semantics, pragmatics, and sociolinguistics (Eckert, 2019; Beltrama, 2020), the current study illuminates the complex interrelations between encoded meaning, pragmatic reasoning, and the social matrix within which language is used and interpreted. Our empirical focus is spousal reference: specifically, the use and interpretation of the form the wife/husband, where use of a possessive pronoun (poss) instead of the is possible. We show that pragmatic reasoning over the relevant expressions’ form and semantics offers a principled set of core motivations for choosing the over poss in spousal reference. At the same time, we present an analysis of attested examples, meta-linguistic commentary on the wife/husband, and a matched-guise perception experiment that together show that how the expressions and the people who use them are ultimately evaluated depends crucially on multiple contextual factors, including whose spouse is being referred to, and—as research on language and gender would lead one to expect—whether the spousal term is wife or husband. Taken together, this study underscores the need for careful consideration of the role of both cultural and discourse context in social perception studies and, more generally, for a holistic approach to language use, variation, and interpretation.

Link to Published Version

DOI: 10.1016/j.pragma.2021.11.005