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MIT Linguistics: Department of Linguistics & Philosophy

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Syntax-Semantics Reading Group
Fall 2014

The primary aim of LFRG is to give you an opportunity to have informal discussions of your own and other people's ideas without having to worry about saying something wrong. Thus, practice talks and presentations of works in progress (or in regress) or papers that you find interesting are especially welcome.

The range of possible topics include semantics, syntax, their interface, and whatnot having a connection to either syntax or semantics. The idea is that a lot of research does not fit into the straight jacket of a narrow area - though it is by no means required to have any interdisciplinary interests to attend LFRG.

Meetings this semester are:

Please see schedule for more details.

There are basically four main kinds of meetings: 1) presentations of one's own work, including in progress and in regress; 2) a genuine reading group meeting: everyone reads, or at least browses, some interesting paper, and we discuss it; 3) a tutorial-like meeting where the persons in charge tell everyone something about not so widely known things - like cool experimental techniques, math tools, new empirical results, etc., and then optionally people say what they think about that; and 4) brainstorming sessions: the persons in charge provide a topic and the necessary background, and the point is to generate some ideas about what one can do about the topic.

Meetings and changes in the schedule are announced here and by email to interested people. If you want to receive the email announcements, want to be in charge of a meeting, or have any other comments about the Syntax-Semantics Reading Group, email Edwin Howard or Chris O'Brien. An incomplete list of previous meetings: Fall 2013 Fall 2012 Spring 2012 Fall 2011 Spring 2011 Fall 2010 Spring 2010 Fall 2009, Spring 2009, Fall 2008, Spring 2008, Fall 2007, Spring 2007, Fall 2006.

Claiming an LFRG slot is not scary at all - so don't hesitate to do that!

September 12:

Mia Nussbaum (MIT)
Subset Comparatives as Comparative Quantifiers
Date/Time: Friday, 12 September, 3:30-5pm
Location: 32-D461

October 8:

Brian Buccola (McGill University)
Time: Wednesday, October 8, 3:30-5pm (note exceptional time!)
Location: 32-D461
Title: Global semantic constraints: the case of van Benthem’s problem

Any adjectival theory of numeral modifiers faces a challenge known as van Benthem’s problem (van Benthem, 1986), whereby non-upward-monotone quantifiers like “fewer than three” give rise to inadequate truth conditions. I propose a novel solution based on general economy principles for LF availability: certain LFs are generated by the grammar but unavailable (blocked) by virtue of (i) their semantic equivalence to LFs of syntactically simpler sentences, and (ii) the simultaneous availability of other, non-trivial LFs. The equivalence check is shown to rely crucially on the distributivity-collectivity properties of the predicates, in particular on whether the predicates distribute to at least some (not necessarily every) subpart (not necessarily atomic). The proposal therefore makes strong predictions regarding the interpretations of sentences with negative (and other) quantifiers and various predicates along the distributive-collective spectrum, which I show are borne out.

October 17:

David Nicolas (ENS)
Friday, 17 October, 3:30pm
Location: 32-D461
Title: Two and a half apples

With some count nouns, we understand expressions of the form “a half N” and “half of an N” and sentences like this one:

(1) Two and a half apples are on the table.

This is true, for instance, if on the table there are two apples and one half apple (half of an apple).

If instead of “two and a half” we use a simple cardinal like “two”, the truth conditions of a similar sentence can be stated like this:

(2) Two apples are on the table
is true iff exists x (apple(x) & card(x) = 2 & on_the_table(x)) {“at least” semantics}

This “at least” semantics of cardinals just asserts the existence of two things. An “exact semantics” would assert the existence of exactly two things and no more.

Whether one adopts an “at least” semantics or an “exact” semantics, these kind of truth conditions are inadequate for (1) for two reasons (Salmon 1997, Liebesman 2014):

Half an apple is not in the denotation of “apples”, so it cannot be in the denotation of two and a half apples if one just “intersects” the meaning of “apples” with that of “two and a half”.
The function card() returns the cardinality of a plurality or set, which can never be a fractional number.
So what are the truth conditions of the sentence and how do we get them?

October 23:

Yimei Xiang (Harvard)
Title: Mention-Some Readings of Indirect Questions: from Experiments to Formalizations
Time: Thursday, October 23, 5:30-7pm
Location: 32-D461

In this talk, I look for experimental clues and propose a schematized analysis for the following three problems about mention-some (MS) readings of indirect questions. First, which type(s) of indirect questions admit MS readings? Second, is there any MS reading sensitive to false answers (FAs)? Third, are FAs equally bad? Based on the results of five TVJTs on ATurk and the reanalysis of Klinedinst & Rothschild’s (2011) raw data, I find that (i) MS readings are also supported by indirect MA-questions under predicates like tell; (ii) there is an MS reading sensitive to FAs, in parallel to the intermediately exhaustive reading; and (iii) FAs are not equally bad, in particular, over affirmation is relatively more acceptable than over deny in MA-questions, while over deny is relatively more acceptable than over affirmation in MS-questions.

November 6:

Speaker: Loes Koring (Utrecht)
Title: The semantics and acquisition of non-embedding reportatives
Time: Thursday, November 6, 5:30-7
Place: 32-D461

Two seemingly similar Dutch evidential raising verbs, schijnen and lijken, have been shown to differ in their distribution (Haegeman 2006). Although they can both be translated to ‘seem’ in English, they do differ in meaning (van Bruggen 1980, Vliegen 2011). Schijnen means that the speaker has indirect reported evidence for the proposition (Vliegen 2011, cf. De Haan 1999); whereas lijken means that the speaker has some type of direct evidence for the proposition, but the evidence is unclear (van Bruggen 1980). Interestingly, whereas lijken can be embedded under modals, negation, and questions for instance, schijnen cannot. One goal of this talk is to identify a semantic property that is responsible for the restrictions in distribution reportative schijnen shows. The claim is that schijnen is restricted in evaluation to the here and now of the speaker (i.e. it is subjective) and as such it cannot occur in nonveridical contexts (cf. Giannakidou 2011). Crucially, the difference in semantics between schijnen and lijken does not only affect their distribution, but also their acquisition and processing. As a secondary goal of this talk, we will look at the effect of the extra semantic computation in acquisition and processing.